The fate of a former Minneapolis police officer who pressed his knee into George Floyd’s neck as the Black man said he couldn’t breathe will be decided by 12 Hennepin County residents picked after extensive grilling about their views on police and the justice system.
Jury selection begins Monday in the trial of Derek Chauvin, who is charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death. Picking a jury is expected to take at least three weeks, as prosecutors and defense attorneys try to weed out people who may be biased against them.
“You don’t want jurors who are completely blank slates, because that would mean they’re not in tune at all with the world,” Susan Gaertner, a former prosecutor, said. “But what you want is jurors who can set aside opinions that have formed prior to walking into the courtroom and give both sides a fair hearing.”
Floyd was declared dead May 25 after Chauvin, who is white, pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck for about nine minutes, holding his position even after Floyd went limp as he was handcuffed and lying on his stomach. Floyd’s death sparked sometimes violent protests in Minneapolis and beyond, and led to a nationwide reckoning on race.
Chauvin and three other officers were fired; the others face an August trial on aiding and abetting charges.
Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, argued that pretrial publicity of the case and the subsequent violent unrest in Minneapolis would make it impossible to find an impartial jury in Hennepin County. But Judge Peter Cahill said last year that moving the trial probably wouldn’t cure the problem of a potentially tainted jury pool because “no corner of the State of Minnesota” has been shielded from pretrial publicity.
The potential jurors, who must be at least 18, U.S. citizens and residents of Hennepin County, were sent questionnaires to determine how much they have heard about the case and whether they’ve formed any opinions. Besides biographical and demographic information, jurors were asked about prior contacts with police, whether they have protested against police brutality and whether they believe the justice system is fair.
Some of the questions get specific, such as how often a potential juror has watched the bystander video of Floyd’s arrest, or whether they carried a sign at a protest and what that sign said.
Mike Brandt, a local defense attorney, said prosecutors will likely seek out jurors who have favorable opinions on the Black Lives Matter movement or might have more outrage over Floyd’s death, while Chauvin’s attorneys would likely favor jurors who support the police.
Unlike typical jury selection proceedings, this jury pool will be questioned one by one instead of in a group. The judge, defense attorney and prosecutors will all get to ask questions. The defense can object to up to 15 potential jurors without giving a reason; prosecutors can block up to nine with no reason given. The other side can object to these so-called peremptory challenges if they believe the sole reason for disqualifying a juror is race or gender.
Both sides can also argue to dismiss an unlimited number of jurors “for cause,” meaning they must provide a reason why they believe that juror shouldn’t serve. Those situations can get into some detailed machinations, Brandt said, and it’s up to the judge to decide whether a juror stays or goes.
“Sometimes there is some tortured questioning,” Brandt said.
He said that even if a juror says they have had a negative interaction with the police, or a negative opinion about Black Lives Matter, the key will be trying to find out whether they can put those past experiences or opinions aside and be fair.
“We all walk into these with biases. The question is, can you put those biases aside and be fair in this case,” he said.
Jury selection will end after 14 people are picked – 12 jurors who will deliberate the case and two alternates who won’t be part of deliberations unless needed. The jurors will be escorted to the courthouse daily and sequestered during deliberations. Their names will be kept confidential until further order of the court.
The number of seats in the courtroom has been limited to maintain social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and seats for jurors have been spaced out. Like others in the courtroom, jurors will be required to wear masks.
The earliest opening statements will begin is March 29.