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A look at Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg as he oversees Trump hush money trial prosecution

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Jury selection began today in the so-called hush money trial against former President Trump. Overseeing the prosecution is Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg Jr. As a federal and state prosecutor, he focused on white-collar crimes. Colleagues view Bragg's experience as essential in an unprecedented case. NPR's Walter Ray Watson has this look at the Manhattan DA.

WALTER RAY WATSON, BYLINE: Alvin Bragg's team of five prosecutors brought a 34-count indictment against Donald Trump last year. The former president pleaded not guilty. Afterwards, Bragg held a news conference.

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ALVIN BRAGG: Under New York state law, it is a felony to falsify business records with intent to defraud and an intent to conceal another crime. That is exactly what this case is about.

WATSON: This is the first-ever criminal indictment against the former U.S. president. The penalty is four years prison if found guilty. In 2022, weeks after entering office, Bragg stopped a previous team of prosecutors from presenting evidence against Trump to a grand jury. Bragg raised doubts. The lead prosecutors quit in protest a month later, and media criticized Bragg's decision. In 2023, Bragg impaneled a new grand jury, which indicted the former president.

TERRI GERSTEIN: I know how careful he is as a lawyer.

WATSON: Terri Gerstein remembers Bragg as her supervisor in the New York Attorney General's office, where she was labor bureau chief. She says he was thorough.

GERSTEIN: He would carefully read all of the pleadings or briefs or memos that we were writing and would look up the cases himself and, like, really, really delve into them.

WATSON: Friends and former colleagues tell NPR that Bragg was no micromanager but a deliberate, smart lawyer, a selfless public servant doing the right things for the right reasons. Details, even small ones, are important to Bragg and not just in legal matters. Attorney Anurima Bhargava leads Anthem of Us, a consulting firm. She's a longtime friend.

ANURIMA BHARGAVA: This year I had a movie premiere. He was working, but, like, he showed up in the back and made sure I knew that he was in the room. And that's the kind of stuff that, like, even if it's for 10 minutes, means something.

WATSON: They met as undergrads at Harvard, where Bragg also earned his law degree. Bhargava says his empathy garnered respect.

BHARGAVA: Alvin was always the person who would go and start a conversation.

WATSON: Nurtured in a storied section of Harlem called Strivers Row, his parents wanted their only child to be open and experience all kinds of people.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Good morning, Abyssinian friends and family.

WATSON: Bragg worships at Abyssinian Baptist Church with his family. He teaches Sunday school. In 2021, then-pastor Calvin Butts III gave Bragg a few moments with the congregation.

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BRAGG: Raised in the village of Harlem, I had a gun pointed at me six times - three by the NYPD during lawless stops and three by people who were not police officers. After the first gunpoint stop by the NYPD, I saw our pastor, Reverend Butts, and he guided me through how to file a civilian complaint. That was the beginning of my advocacy.

WATSON: Bragg campaigned and won on his lived experience. He became the first Black person elected Manhattan DA.

JELANI COBB: Alvin Bragg is somebody who grew up in Harlem at the time that stop and frisk was just, you know, a part of life.

WATSON: Jelani Cobb has covered Bragg for The New Yorker.

COBB: For progressive prosecutors in general, I would say him included, their ability to make reform in the system is always counterbalanced by the public's perception of its safety.

KAREN FRIEDMAN AGNIFILO: It really is a time in our history for a person of color to be the district attorney.

WATSON: Former prosecutor Karen Friedman Agnifilo served as second in command to the last Manhattan district attorney, Cy Vance, and says Bragg shows he's got the skills to be a great DA.

FRIEDMAN AGNIFILO: If there were some growing pains in the beginning, you know, that happens, right? It's a tough job. It's a big job.

WATSON: Bragg is tested almost daily. Earlier this year, there was an incident where migrants allegedly attacked police officers in Times Square.

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PATRICK HENDRY: Why did these four individuals be released on their own recognizance? Why aren't they in jail right now?

WATSON: Patrick Hendry, head of the Police Benevolent Association, the city's largest police union, as well as politicians and media, criticized Bragg because suspected migrants were freed without bail. Prosecutors were charged later after a thorough investigation. Bragg defended his office.

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BRAGG: We do not tolerate people assaulting police officers, but in a court of law, our profound obligation is to make sure we have the right people charged with the right crimes.

WATSON: Karen Friedman Agnifilo says critics and the public often lack information prosecutors are privy to. She says being a politician is not the main focus for the DA.

FRIEDMAN AGNIFILO: Although you are an elected official, you really have a higher calling, if you will, or a higher purpose that you have to serve, which is justice.

WATSON: You are an officer of the court first, she says. The unprecedented case that Manhattan DA Bragg doubted, delayed and later revived will put him to the test. Jury selection has begun. Walter Ray Watson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Walter Ray Watson is a senior producer for NPR News.