MINNEAPOLIS – Attorneys for former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin expressed frustration Tuesday after several prospective jurors told the court they were aware of recent breaking news that the city settled a wrongful death suit with George Floyd’s family.
Chauvin’s lawyers argued the jurors’ knowledge of the news event will bias their ability to render a fair verdict.
“The pretrial publicity is just so concerning,” said Chauvin’s lead attorney, Eric Nelson. He asked the judge to excuse any prospective jurors who claim knowledge of the settlement.
But the judge denied the defense’s request and said he believed prospective jurors were capable of setting aside what they’ve seen in the news. “The $27 million settlement is unfortunate,” Cahill said. “It is something to consider. But let’s face it, it’s not just a legal decision, it’s a political decision, and I think people realize that.”
Nine of the 12 jurors have been seated so far; two alternates will also be selected. The seven jurors seated last week were expected to be called before the judge Wednesday for a brief interview on their knowledge of the settlement and whether it will affect their ability to be impartial.
Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder — which was added last week — and second-degree manslaughter. Floyd, a Black man, died in police custody on May 25, 2020, when Chauvin, who is white, pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes. As he lay on the ground under Chauvin, Floyd cried out “I can’t breathe” more than 20 times. The incident sparked protests worldwide.
- The seven jurors seated last week were scheduled to appear before the judge on Zoom starting at 8:45 a.m. CT Wednesday to discuss their knowledge of the city’s settlement.
- Of the 15 prospective jurors interviewed by the court since the announcement of the settlement Friday afternoon, four said they saw news of the settlement. At least three said they believed they could still be impartial.
- Tuesday morning, the judge said he’s still considering change of venue and continuance. He said the defense’s motion to sequester the jury was denied “at this point.”
- Of the nine jurors selected to serve on Chauvin’s trial, five of the jurors identify as white, one as multiracial, one as Hispanic and two as Black, according to the court. Seven of the jurors are in their 20s or 30s, and two are in their 50s.
- About 30 to 40 protesters blocked traffic near the Minneapolis courthouse Monday, demanding a fair trial and arguing that the jury must reflect the city’s demographics.
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Judge weighs whether jury can hear evidence related to prior arrest
Court kicked off Tuesday morning with a back-and-forth over whether the jury will be able to hear evidence from a May 2019 arrest of Floyd that Chauvin’s attorney said bore “remarkable similarities” to the May 2020 arrest that led to Floyd’s death.
Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill ruled in January that evidence related to the 2019 arrest could not be brought up at trial. But Chauvin’s attorney moved Tuesday to admit some related evidence, in light of new documents from the federal government’s ongoing civil rights investigation. Prosecutors said the defense was trying to “smear” Floyd. The judge said he’d take the matter under review.
Chauvin attorney Eric Nelson said Floyd had a “pattern” of dealing with arrests by injecting drugs, acting out and ignoring medical advice that he could die or have a stroke due to his history of high blood pressure.
The state said the defense was simply trying to “smear” Floyd, who had a history of drug addiction and was making efforts to battle it. “It tells us a lot about the real motivations behind this,” said prosecutor Matthew Frank. “The desperation of the defense to sort of smear Mr. Floyd’s character by showing that … he struggled with an opiate and opioid addiction like so many Americans do.”
The judge, who said he would weigh the arguments overnight if not longer, all but signaled he would not let the defense use the argument that Floyd showed a legal pattern of “habit” based on just two incidents that are not identical. The judge said medical evidence from the May 2019 arrest might be introduced, but not the “emotional.”
City’s $27M settlement with family complicates Chauvin’s trial
The historic $27 million settlement in a civil lawsuit filed over Floyd’s death complicates the high-profile prosecution of Derek Chauvin and could become grounds for an appeal of a conviction, legal observers say.
Floyd’s family filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in July against the city, Chauvin and three other officers charged in his death. It alleged the officers, who have since been fired, violated Floyd’s rights when they restrained him and that the city allowed a culture of excessive force, racism and impunity to flourish on its police force.
The announcement of the settlement, which happened when the criminal trial was on a lunchtime break last week, “was incredibly bad timing and extremely damaging to the defense and maybe the state,” said Mary Moriarty, former chief public defender of Hennepin County, Minnesota.
Among the possible effects: A potential juror could presume there’s no need to convict Chauvin because the Floyd family has already received a large settlement, she said. Read more here.
Judge considers delaying proceedings
On Monday, the defense in the Derek Chauvin trial asked for a continuance, that seven jurors be recalled and for extra strikes during voir dire due to the $27 million civil settlement. Chauvin’s lead attorney, Eric Nelson, also asked for a change in venue for the proceedings and that jurors seated to be sequestered.
Judge Peter Cahill said he would consider delaying the proceedings but denied that Chauvin’s attorneys would be given additional strikes, used to eliminate potential jurors. He also ruled the seven jurors seated before Monday should be recalled to ask about their exposure to the news.
Cahill said Monday he was “disturbed” by the timing of the city’s announcement, but that he does “not believe there was any evil intent” by the state to coordinate with city leaders, including Mayor Jacob Frey, to announce the settlement now and infect the jury’s impartiality.
Nelson called the timing “profoundly disturbing” and said, “The goal of this system is to provide a fair trial. And this is not fair.”
Nine jurors — six men and three women — have been selected so far to serve during Derek Chauvin’s trial. The court will need to seat a total of 12 jurors and two alternates.
Given the circumstances of Floyd’s death – a Black man dying under the knee of a white police officer – the racial makeup of the jury is a key concern. Five of the jurors identify as white, one as multiracial, one as Hispanic and two as Black, according to the court.
Among the jurors selected: a man who immigrated from Africa to the U.S., a chemist, a man who works in banking and teaches youth sports, a mother of two who worried for her safety in serving on the case, a man who said he somewhat disagreed the criminal justice system is biased against minorities, a woman who said she was “super excited” to serve, a man who said he had a fairly negative view of Blue Lives Matter, a single mother of two and a groom who will likely have to cancel his wedding to serve on the jury.
Contributing: Tami Abdollah and Kevin McCoy, USA TODAY