Jury selection began in the former Minneapolis cop’s trial for the death of George Floyd, but questions about the status of a third-degree murder charge remain unresolved.
MINNEAPOLIS (CN) — Jury selection began in earnest Tuesday in the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. A district court judge opted to push forward with Chauvin’s trial for the death of George Floyd after hearing no word from Minnesota’s Court of Appeals on prosecutors’ Monday morning request for a halt to the case.
The court sifted through nine potential jurors on Tuesday, approving three to join the 16-person jury. Selection was scheduled to start Monday, but was delayed for a dispute over whether Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill had jurisdiction to continue while his refusal to add a third-degree murder charge against Chauvin awaited appeal. Cahill dismissed jurors Monday morning but said he would proceed as planned Tuesday unless the Court of Appeals issued an order on prosecutors’ request for a writ of prohibition.
Chauvin held Floyd, a Black man, in a chokehold for several minutes in May 2020, and when Floyd died soon afterward a video of the incident went viral and sparked protests around the nation. Prospective jurors’ familiarity with that video and opinions of the protests were major focal points for questioning by Eric Nelson, who represents Chauvin. The jurors were also questioned about their opinions of Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter and their thoughts on the heavy security measures put in place around the courthouse.
The jurors are anonymous and were not visible to those watching from outside the courtroom, where attendance was restricted as a Covid-19 precaution. Pool reporters inside the courtroom reported that the selected jurors included one white man, a woman of color, and a man of unknown race. Prosecutors raised concerns about race discrimination early on, after Nelson used strikes for the first two jurors of color before the court, but Cahill denied the motion, saying that the defense attorney had good reason to do so for each. The first had a tricky language barrier, and the second’s martial arts instruction raised concerns that he might take his own experience over experts’ testimonies.
Six other jurors were passed over: three for cause, one by the state and two by the defense. The parties agreed to strike 14 others before selection began. Among those who didn’t make the cut were a working mother with a slight language barrier and a stated intent to “give my opinion of the unjust death of George Floyd,” a young woman who said she wasn’t sure she could be impartial and an accountant who worried about his safety and ability to balance work with jury responsibilities during tax season. Another man, 19 years old, said he was anxious about creating more division in his community and was ultimately dismissed after he said he would not consider the testimony of police witnesses for the defense on a level with others.
Those who made it included a chemist who said he hoped to move to the area near where Floyd died soon, a woman from Northern Minnesota who expressed excitement about being a juror and a taciturn man who said he worked in client service as an accountant.
All three of the selected jurors expressed mixed opinions on Black Lives Matter. Both juror #2, the chemist, and #19, the quiet accountant, said they believed in the phrase but had issues with “the organization” of the movement. The female juror, #9, said she was supportive of the movement but believed it had become something of a marketing ploy.
“I like the idea of what they’re supposed to stand for, but I think it’s been turned into a propaganda scheme by a bunch of companies to get us to buy their stuff,” she said.
None were especially supportive of “Blue Lives Matter,” a phrase coined in response to the Black Lives Matter slogan as a show of support for police, but Juror #9 said she was close with an uncle who works as a police officer in Bemidji.
Prosecutor Steve Schleicher questioned jurors on behalf of the state while other members of the prosecution team wrote their response to Nelson’s petition for review in a pending appeal. He and Nelson both questioned several jurors on their relationships with other police officers, probing their ability to evaluate police testimony fairly. They also touched on jurors’ feelings of safety in the heavily-barricaded courthouse and after the trial. The chemist said he’d been reassured by the barricades, and the other two expressed no serious concerns about their safety at all.
The relatively plodding pace of jury selection stood in sharp contrast to the broader background of the case, which is tangled in a growing knot of appeals and surrounded by still more protests. The appeals largely center on the third-degree murder charge, which Cahill dismissed early in the case.
His dismissal of that charge centered on a longstanding interpretation of Minnesota’s third-degree murder statute, which requires that an action be dangerous to people other than the deceased to qualify as third-degree murder. Since Floyd was the only one threatened by Chauvin’s knee, he reasoned, third-degree murder didn’t apply.
That interpretation was challenged when the Court of Appeals issued a decision in another case against a former Minneapolis police officer, State v. Noor. The court found in a 2-1 decision that third-degree murder only required one victim of reckless conduct. That case was quickly appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which has agreed to hear it in June.
Prosecutors asked Cahill to restore the third-degree murder charge, but he declined, saying that the Noor decision was not binding yet. They appealed that decision and won at the Court of Appeals, but Nelson sought review by the Supreme Court on Monday. The state’s response to his petition came due at 5 p.m. Tuesday.
Prosecutors also argued that while that appeal was pending, Cahill did not have jurisdiction to begin jury selection. Eager to start, Cahill granted leave to appeal his decision but said he planned to go forward on Tuesday regardless. After some early wrangling over motions in limine, almost all related to limitations on testimony, he did so at midmorning. No decision came down from the higher court on Tuesday.
Cahill cut off discussion around 4:30 p.m., after Juror 19’s selection. It is set to resume Wednesday morning.