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E. Jean Carroll's civil trial against former President Donald Trump begins

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The civil trial in a lawsuit brought by writer E. Jean Carroll against former President Donald Trump started today in New York. It involves allegations of sexual assault, and it's moving quickly. A federal jury was seated this morning, and lawyers gave their opening statements after lunch. NPR's Ilya Marritz has been in court, and he joins us now. And, Ilya, this is a civil lawsuit, but it spins off an allegation of rape. Why don't you walk us through the case?

ILYA MARRITZ, BYLINE: Sure. So last fall, E. Jean Carroll, a writer who's known as a longtime advice columnist for women's magazines, filed a complaint against Donald Trump. And it really has two parts - battery and defamation. Battery is the legal term that's used here, but what Carroll says Trump did is he raped her. She says it happened in the changing room of the Bergdorf Goodman department store in Manhattan, either in 1995 or 1996. And I should say Carroll is able to bring this case because of a law that passed here in New York that allowed plaintiffs alleging sexual assault to bring suits outside of the statute of limitations for a limited period of time.

The next part of the case is defamation. Carroll says Trump's response to her story damaged her credibility, hit her bottom line, deprived her of income and prestige she otherwise would have enjoyed. Trump and his lawyers deny all of it.

BLOCK: OK. So the jury is seated. What did the attorneys say in their opening statements?

MARRITZ: Carroll's lawyer, Shawn Crowley, started by describing the alleged rape in pretty graphic and disturbing detail, with Trump forcing himself on Carroll behind a locked door in that department store at night when no one was around. But this is an almost 30-year-old case. What Crowley said next really matters. She said, this is not a he said, she said case. She said E. Jean has a lot of evidence to corroborate the assault, even though there is no camera evidence and no police report. What she does have is statements from two friends of E. Jean's, who were told almost immediately about the alleged assault.

Then it was time for Trump attorney Joe Tacopina to speak for the defense. He was one of five men at the defense table. The plaintiff had two men and two women. And Tacopina very aggressively went after Carroll's credibility. He said what she was doing is an affront to justice. He said she is undermining real rape victims, and he said Carroll made these allegations to make money and raise her fame and prestige and that she has succeeded at that. And I was just really struck by how much Tacopina got into the politics of this and how angry he seemed.

BLOCK: Now, I understand the judge in the case had some stern words for those involved. What was that?

MARRITZ: Judge Lewis Kaplan is very concerned about security. And before prospective jurors were brought in for questioning, he told the two legal teams to please tell their clients to refrain from statements that could incite violence or civil unrest. Those were his words. And he warned them against conduct with the potential to jeopardize the safety of any individuals or the rule of law. This is strikingly similar language to what we heard from another judge in another Trump case, that criminal falsification of business records case where Trump pleaded not guilty just earlier this month. It was really striking to me.

BLOCK: Now, Ilya, the jurors in this case are anonymous. What do we know about them?

MARRITZ: It's a nine member jury - six men, three women - and beyond that, not very much. The jurors will be known by their numbers throughout the process - no names. And for their safety, they're being driven in and out of the building each day and let out at a secure drop-off point. Judge Kaplan is not taking chances. He wants this trial to go smoothly. He is keenly aware of the potential for all kinds of mischief and bad deeds to happen around it.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Ilya Marritz, joining us from federal court in Manhattan where he is covering the civil trial against former President Donald Trump. Ilya, thanks so much.

MARRITZ: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ilya Marritz