Hunter Biden jury pool highlights toll of US drug epidemic

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Rebecca Hartmann,BBC News, Washington

Getty Images Image shows Hunter Biden arriving at court with his wifeGetty Images

Prosecutors will likely delve into Hunter Biden’s drug addiction, a subject many potential jurors said they had been personally affected by

In a Delaware courtroom, at the outset of a trial involving the son of President Joe Biden, the extent of America’s drug addiction epidemic was laid bare.

Jury selection in Hunter Biden’s trial on federal gun charges began on Monday, with the court working through a pool of 65 randomly selected people who appeared individually to answer a key question – could they remain impartial during such a high-profile, politically-charged trial?

Almost immediately, the issue of drug addiction and its consequences in the US emerged as a common theme among the group. More than two dozen potential jurors said they knew someone who had suffered from substance abuse or addiction. Stories of daughters, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers struggling with addiction unravelled over the course of the day.

The subject will play a central role in the trial, as prosecutors delve into the younger Biden’s history of crack cocaine use as they seek to prove he knowingly lied about his drug habits when purchasing a gun in 2018. The defence, meanwhile, say the 54-year-old was in recovery at the time so was truthful when he said he was not a drug user.

Given the relevance of addiction to the trial, time and time again the court heard personal accounts from potential jurors about the toll the issue had taken on them.

“My childhood best friend passed away from an overdose,” one juror said. Another explained how their brother had struggled with opioid addiction and was now in rehab. Someone else’s brother and brother-in-law had both been addicted to alcohol and had now died.

One person detailed how their nephew got a football scholarship to college, but slipped into drug addiction following a shoulder injury. “They kept giving him [oxycontin], and then he quit their football program, he was a mess,” they told the courtroom. “He got in trouble, he burglarised the bar [and] restaurant that he was working at, and he was addicted to drugs at the time.”

The sometimes emotional first-hand accounts could be replicated across the US, with the sheer number of stories emerging from the pool of 65 highlighting just how widespread the problem is.

One man broke down crying explaining that both their nephew and brother-in-law had struggled with drug addiction. “I can tell that’s a very emotional thing for you,” the judge said, “I know it’s hard and I’m very sorry”.

Another potential juror told how their sister had been jailed for credit card fraud and drug charges. She had been struggling with addiction but was currently clean. One person’s brother was “doing better” now they were in rehab for opioid addiction.

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The flurry of personal stories is a trend that’s mirrored nationally. A study published in May 2024 by Johns Hopkins University found that one in three Americans know someone who has died of a drug overdose. For 20% of those who took part in that survey, it was a family member or a close friend who had died.

Matthew Eisenberg, the Director for Mental Health and Addiction Policy at Johns Hopkins University, said the jury pool’s experience was reflective of the overall US population.

“Nearly one in three people at any given time have a substance use or mental health disorder in the US,” he told BBC News. “Around 16-17% of folks have said they have an addiction problem over the past year.”

Many of the potential jurors spoke of their loved ones struggling with opioids or heroin, but there were other addictions mentioned as well. And while the opioid epidemic gets a lot of attention due to its scale, Dr Eisenberg said, it is important to note there are other serious issues too.

“10% of adults in the US have an alcohol use disorder,” he said, “[and] 3% of folks have a simultaneous alcohol and drug use disorder.”

Hunter Biden has been open about his struggle with addiction, writing at length about his crack cocaine habit in his 2021 memoir, Beautiful Things, and mentioning it in interviews.

“Look, everybody faces pain,” he told the New Yorker in 2019. “There’s addiction in every family. I was in that darkness. I was in that tunnel – it’s a never-ending tunnel. You don’t get rid of it. You figure out how to deal with it.”

And his father has spoken of the issue and his support for his son, too. “My son, like a lot of people, like a lot of people you know at home, had a drug problem,” Mr Biden said in the first presidential debate in 2020 “He’s overtaken it, he’s fixed it, he’s worked on it, and I’m proud of him.”

The importance of the support of family members was also a sentiment expressed in the courtroom earlier this week.

“I have a daughter that’s a recovering addict,” a member of the jury pool told the court. “And I think after everybody is recovering, they need a second chance. My daughter has been given a second chance, everybody needs a second chance.”

The scene in the courtroom in Delaware showed how the issue has affected families from all walks of life in the US – including those who occupy the White House. Few have escaped unscathed.

“Addiction is a disease that affects people of all education statuses, income levels, races and ethnicities and all age levels too” Dr Eisenberg said, noting, however, that there were disparities in access to treatment.

After a day of whittling down the jury pool, four of the final 12 jurors serving on the trial know someone who has struggled with addiction. Two of the alternates have also been personally affected by the issue.

“I have lost many friends to drug overdoses,” one alternate told the court. “I feel it’s an everyday part of the world these days.”

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