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Man sets self on fire outside New York court where Trump trial underway

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Warning: Contains graphic content

A man set himself on fire on Friday outside the New York courthouse where Donald Trump's historic hush-money trial was taking place as jury selection wrapped up, but officials said he did not appear to have been targeting Trump.

The man burned for several minutes in full view of television cameras that were set up outside the courthouse, where the first-ever criminal trial of a former U.S. president is being held.

"I see a totally charred human being," a CNN reporter said on the air.

Officials said the man survived and was in critical condition at a local hospital.

Witnesses said the man pulled pamphlets out of a backpack and threw them in the air before he doused himself with a liquid and set himself on fire. One of those pamphlets included references to "evil billionaires" but portions that were visible to a Reuters witness did not mention Trump.

The New York Police Department said the man, who they identified as Max Azzarello of St. Augustine, Florida, did not appear to be targeting Trump or others involved in the trial.

"Right now we are labeling him as sort of a conspiracy theorist, and we are going from there," Tarik Sheppard, a deputy commissioner with the Police Department, said at a news conference.

In an online manifesto, a man using that name said he set himself on fire and apologized to friends, witnesses and first responders. The post warns of "an apocalyptic fascist coup" and criticizes cryptocurrency and U.S. politicians, but does not single out Trump in particular.

Witnesses said they were disturbed by his actions.

"He was on fire for quite a while," one witness, who declined to give his name, told reporters. "It was pretty horrifying."

A smell of smoke lingered in the plaza shortly after the incident, according to a Reuters witness, and a police officer sprayed a fire extinguisher on the ground. A smoldering backpack and a gas can were visible.

The downtown Manhattan courthouse, heavily guarded by police, drew a throng of protesters and onlookers on Monday, the trial's first day, though crowds have dwindled since then.

Jury selection complete

The shocking development came shortly after jury selection for the trial was completed, clearing the way for prosecutors and defense attorneys to make opening statements next week in a case stemming from hush money paid to a porn star.

The 12 jurors, along with six alternates, will consider evidence in a first-ever trial to determine whether a former U.S. president is guilty of breaking the law.

The jury consists of seven men and five women, mostly employed in white-collar professions: two corporate lawyers, a software engineer, a speech therapist and an English teacher.

Most are not native New Yorkers, hailing from across the United States and countries like Ireland and Lebanon. The alternates, who will also hear the case, are held in reserve in case one of the jurors has to leave due to illness or some other cause.

Trump is accused of covering up a US$130,000 payment his former lawyer Michael Cohen made to porn star Stormy Daniels before the 2016 election to keep quiet about a sexual encounter she says they had a decade earlier.

Trump has pleaded not guilty to 34 counts of falsifying business records brought by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg and denies any such encounter with Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford.

Trump has pleaded not guilty in three other criminal cases as well, but this is the only one certain to go to trial ahead of the Nov. 5 election, when the Republican politician aims to again take on Democratic President Joe Biden.

A conviction would not bar him from office.

(Reporting by Luc Cohen and Jack Queen in New York and Andy Sullivan in Washington; additional reporting by Cynthia Osterman; Writing by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Noeleen Walder, Daniel Wallis and Jonathan Oatis)

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