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Miami trial over attack involving Trump, Biden fans starts with hunt for impartial jury

Potential jurors are being asked to discuss their feelings about the country’s polarized politics.
Eduardo Acosta, left, in the courtroom at Miami Dade Criminal Court with his attorney Eric Matheny, right, during jury selection. Acosta, a Trump follower, is standing trial for attempted murder for allegedly shooting at a man who had a Biden flag on his Jet Ski on Election Day 2020.
Eduardo Acosta, left, in the courtroom at Miami Dade Criminal Court with his attorney Eric Matheny, right, during jury selection. Acosta, a Trump follower, is standing trial for attempted murder for allegedly shooting at a man who had a Biden flag on his Jet Ski on Election Day 2020. [ JOSE A. IGLESIAS | El Nuevo Herald ]
Published Oct. 14, 2022

While voters all over Miami-Dade County were casting their ballots in the contentious presidential election on November 3, 2020, police say one Donald Trump supporter was dangerously expressing his political opinions out on Biscayne Bay with threats and a handgun.

Triggered, police say, by a Joe Biden flag on a Jet Ski, Eduardo Acosta allegedly went ballistic and attacked two men, firing at them from his own personal watercraft as they fled on the water and then chasing them down and threatening them at gunpoint — all while repeating a conspiracy that Biden supporters are child molesters.

Two years later, Acosta, 39, is fighting charges that include two counts of premeditated attempted murder with a weapon, two counts of aggravated assault with a weapon and robbery with a weapon.

His trial began this week as attorneys attempted to select a jury.

He is facing up to life in prison, with a 20-year mandatory minimum for discharging the firearm.

Though the charges are in dispute, the altercation — some of which was caught on video — was a clear reflection of how tense the political environment in South Florida had become by Election Day 2020. Now, efforts to find an impartial jury to decide Acosta’s fate have provided a window into how politically divided Miami remains ahead of the Nov. 8 midterm election.

What’s typically the more tedious part of a trial, the jury selection process in Acosta’s trial — which has lasted two days and could spill into next week — has exposed raw feelings, with dozens of potential jurors forced to discuss their feelings about the country’s polarized politics.

On Tuesday, one potential juror said she could try to cope through the case’s allusions to violence, despite having a person close to her brutally murdered in recent years. But she couldn’t put aside the politics.

“It’s not that I think Biden is awesome, but Trump represents everything that I ... have a disdain for,” said the woman. “I think he’s a vile human being.” She was promptly dismissed.

One by one, other jurors followed with similarly intimate stories on how the last four years in politics had impacted their ability to be objective.

Several said they knew what it was like to almost lose friends, or to try to move past hurtful conversations with relatives divided over political ideologies.

“Things have been said that there’s no taking back,” one potential juror told attorneys.

Some potential jurors said they had attended pro-Trump rallies. One man said he rallied for Trump in Miami in the lead-up to the 2020 election and claimed the event only got rowdy once anti-Trump protesters showed up to throw bottles and cans. Another said his wife had in fact worked in the campaigns of Florida’s past three Republican governors.

But by far the most heated and vociferous opinions on the first day of jury selection were from citizens who did not feel they could fairly judge someone who supported Trump.

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Related: Tampa Bay Times 2022 General Election Voter Guide: Local candidates on the issues

Changing political identities

Once a stronghold for the Democratic Party in Florida, Miami-Dade County voters —and Hispanic voters in particular — have been steadily joining the Republican Party or not identifying with any party at all since 2018.

And while Democrats still safely outnumber Republicans, Miami-Dade appears more like a divided battleground in recent years, in a state that Republicans insist is shifting more to the right.

In the past years, Miami-Dade has also been a venue for tense rallies and massive boat parades in support of Trump — it is commonplace for boaters to have flags in support of Trump, Biden or, more recently, flags carrying the name and campaign logo of Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Adding to the case’s peculiarity is that Acosta’s defense attorney, Eric Matheny, has himself tapped into local political commentary. He co-hosts a political podcast called “Bob and Eric Save America.” The podcast, which carries the name of Trump’s own political committee, features a wide range of topics appealing to conservative and right-wing listeners.

“In this country, we can still have verbal arguments about politics, we still have that right,” Matheny told the Herald on Tuesday.

While Matheny said he could not yet comment on the allegation against Acosta, Matheny argued his client was “grossly overcharged” by the state, something he says will become clear once the trial begins.

“You don’t have the right to commit violence, you don’t have the right to physically assault anyone. But if you go out and you have a flag, I don’t care if it’s for Biden or Trump. ... You invite people to comment on it,” he said.

The allegations

According to the arrest affidavit, police say Acosta was on his Jet Ski with a group of men on Nov. 3, 2020, when they allegedly approached two other men — Wilson Peralta and Alfredo Garcia — who were spending the day on the small island near the Miami Marine Stadium.

One of them was flying a Biden flag on one of their own Jet Skis that said “Running with Biden.”

They began to argue and, according to the affidavit, Acosta said anyone who supported Biden was a “child molester.” The insult originates from the QAnon conspiracy theory that a “deep state” group of child sex traffickers are secretly working to defeat Trump.

According to a cellphone video recorded by one of the two men, Acosta at some point lunged at them but was held back by one of the people in his group.

The accounts given to police at the time show Acosta allegedly came back by himself, this time with what the victims say was a black gun in his hand.

Peralta and Garcia jumped on their jet skis and tried to flee. One of them says he heard a bullet whiz by. Both fell off of their jet skis trying to flee, they told police.

Acosta caught up to them in the water and insisted on making a stronger statement, the affidavit claims. Holding the two men at gunpoint, Acosta allegedly said, in Spanish: “Don’t come back to this island. I’m going to kill you.”

Garcia and Peralta said Acosta tied one of their Jet Skis to his own and took off.

Jury selection

Jury selection is expected to continue on Monday. Matheny says he expects jurors’ political passions will continue to play a role in their selection.

“That’s not to say that all our jurors are going to be Democrat or Republican, it really doesn’t matter to us. We just want a fair and impartial jury, as to who’s going to rightly and fairly decide the facts in this case,” he said. “That’s the challenge because objectivity is kind of a thing of the past. We all reside in our political echo chambers.”

As Acosta’s attorneys and prosecutors vetted potential jurors Tuesday, one man answered questions about why he listened to the podcast hosted by Joe Rogan, a political commentator whose controversial views on society and politics have at times veered into insults against Black and LGBTQ people.

A woman was asked to explain why she liked a tweet by Trump’s cousin, Mary Trump, calling the former president “a traitor” almost two years ago. Another confessed outright that political conversations gave her anxiety and she wouldn’t be able to sit through the trial.

The judge presiding over the case, Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Daryl Trawick, excused some people almost immediately.

By the end of Tuesday, with several excused for other various reasons, the number of people in the pool of potential jurors was nearly halved.

Throughout the day, one of the prosecutors in the case, Rachel Morales-Gellis, walked in all directions inside the courtroom and peppered her audience of potential jurors with questions about their political biases.

“Remember that Donald Trump and Joe Biden, they are not defendants in this case. And they’re not witnesses in this case,” said Morales-Gellis during her jury selection presentation on Tuesday. “No one’s going to judge you for your feelings or your thoughts. We just need to know what they are.”

As the trial’s first day wrapped up, Morales-Gellis posed a hypothetical scenario to a potential juror, after the woman indicated in her jury questionnaire she has had disagreements with family over politics.

“Let’s say ... there was a physical fight started by one side,” she said. “Would you assume that the person who started the fight is, ‘fill in the blank?’ Of which party?”

“Trump,” the woman replied, without hesitation.

Miami Herald staff writer David Ovalle contributed to this story.