MINNEAPOLIS — Jury selection was underway Tuesday in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, a painstaking process where lawyers questioned potential jurors about their knowledge of the high-profile case and whether they could set aside any existing opinions to serve as an impartial juror.
The court heard from five prospective jurors and seated one before breaking for lunch.
Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter in the death of George Floyd last May. Prosecutors contend Floyd, 46, was killed by Chauvin’s knee, compressed against Floyd’s neck for more than 9 minutes while he was handcuffed and pinned to the pavement.
Three weeks have been set aside to choose the jury. Opening statements are scheduled for March 29.
- The first juror was seated Tuesday morning. The man, a chemist, said he was an “advocate of community policing” who believes “all lives matter equally.” He said he has not seen the video of Floyd’s death.
- Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill and the lawyers asked potential jurors about their previous knowledge of the case, whether they’ve seen it on the news and how they responded to a 13-page questionnaire.
- Prosecutors challenged the defense Tuesday afternoon after the defense struck a second potential juror who is Hispanic. The judge denied that the strike was race-based and upheld it.
- Meanwhile, an appeals court has yet to weigh in on whether jury selection should pause while the defense asks the state Supreme Court to review a third-degree murder charge. Jury selection had been delayed Monday due to a debate over this.
- Derek Chauvin appeared in court Tuesday seated beside his attorney, writing notes on a legal pad.
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State challenges defense for striking two Hispanic jurors
The fourth prospective juror, a Hispanic man originally from Southern California who does martial arts Jujutsu and Muay Thai, was the second Hispanic potential juror struck by the defense Tuesday afternoon, prompting state prosecutors to raise what is called a Batson challenge.
A Batson challenge is made by one party in a case to the other party’s use of peremptory challenges to eliminate potential jurors on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity or religion.
The judge, however, denied the challenge, saying the defense had raised a “race neutral” reason for striking the martial artist – that, based on his own training, he had opinions about some of the moves the cops used and would have to be proved wrong. That would improperly shift the burden of proof to the defense, the judge said.
The second prospective juror, an outdoorsy chemist who worked for many years as a camp counselor through his childhood synagogue, was seated on the jury Tuesday morning.
He’s a self-described “advocate of community policing” who said he believes “all lives matter equally.” He said he has not seen the video of Floyd’s death but visited the site where he died when he and his fiancee were thinking of moving to the general area.
Millions of people watched George Floyd take his last breath while pinned under Derek Chauvin’s knee. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest police killings of Black men like him, chanting his last words: “I can’t breathe.” Others criticized looters and responded, “All lives matter.”
In state court, lawyers for the defense and prosecution question prospective jurors. In the Chauvin case, the court sent a 13-page questionnaire to people in the jury pool months ahead of time. At the top of the document is a stern warning: “From this day forward, DO NOT read or intentionally view anything about these cases or do any investigation or research related to these cases.”
On Monday, attorneys struck 16 potential jurors from the pool based solely on their answers to the questionnaire. On Tuesday, the judge welcomed potential jurors into the 18th floor courtroom and began the process of individually interviewing the jurors.
►The first, a mother of three from Mexico who works in a maternity ward, faced questions from the judge and defense about her English language skills. She said she had seen some coverage of the incident on TV since filling out the questionnaire and said Chauvin’s actions were “not fair because we are humans.” The judge excused her for cause.
►The third, a woman with self-described “strong opinions” about the case, was excused for cause. “There’s already too much that has happened and too much that is cold, hard fact that cannot be ignored,” she said. “At this point, it would be interesting to understand how the evidence is different than what has already played out in the news and media coverage.”
Judge rules on what witnesses, lawyers can tell jurors
As court convened early Tuesday, the parties ran through a series of remaining motions, before starting jury selection:
►The judge ruled that witness police officers who were at the scene cannot testify to “what they would have done differently” if they had been in Chauvin’s place. The judge said the ruling does not limit experts and training officers to testify whether it was an appropriate use of force according to training.
►The judge ruled that a Minneapolis firefighter who was at the scene can tell jurors what she saw but cannot say that if she had intervened she could’ve saved Floyd’s life.
►The judge ruled that prosecutors can tell jurors the dates of Chauvin’s employment with the Minneapolis police department, but not say that Chauvin was “terminated.”
Organizers canceled a planned vigil in George Floyd Square, where he died, on Monday evening after a man was shot and killed there over the weekend.
“Our hearts are broken,” organizers wrote on Facebook. “We understand that there is an impulse to gather in-person during times of struggle and grief. We have been asked NOT to gather in person … out of respect for the grieving community.”
Meanwhile in Seattle, protesters calling for more community control over police gathered for a planned demonstration on Monday night, local media reported. Rally speaker Zane Smith told the crowd in Westlake Park the trial will likely not achieve justice for George Floyd and a similar lack of accountability exists in Washington, KOMO-TV reported.
“We see these murders in the streets and we see officers get off and we’re not holding our breath for a guilty verdict,” Smith said, adding that a civilian police accountability council should be formed to oversee the police department’s budget, policy, hiring and oversight.
Here’s why this murder charge is disrupting Chauvin’s trial
Jury selection in Chauvin’s trial was supposed to begin Monday. Instead, the day began with a confusing debate over whether it was premature to select jurors without resolving the question of whether Chauvin will face an additional charge of third-degree murder.
Chauvin’s case has become a jigsaw puzzle, its prospects complicated by a separate appeals court ruling made in February.
The ruling by the Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld the third-degree murder conviction of ex-Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor, who fatally shot Justine Ruszczyk Damond in 2017. The appeals court upheld the conviction even though the incident didn’t involve anyone other than the victim.
That contradicted a reading of the law Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill relied on last fall to throw out a third-degree murder charge against Chauvin. After the ruling in the Noor case, prosecutors asked Cahill to reinstate that charge. He refused.
Friday, the appeals court said Cahill should not have tossed that charge because the Noor ruling was the precedent.
The Noor case, meanwhile, is set to be heard by the Minnesota Supreme Court in June.
“This is very rare and extremely unfortunate,” said Mary Moriarty, the former Hennepin County chief public defender. “It’s very rare for the parties and the judge frankly not to know the charges are when you are scheduled to start your trial, (but) everyone is doing the best they can.”
Floyd’s sister thanks supporters, had ‘very, very emotional day’
Bridgett Floyd, George Floyd’s sister, thanked supporters after a “very, very emotional day” at a brief press conference outside the courthouse Monday. Floyd shared a few details about her experience as the first family member to sit inside the courtroom during the trial and Derek Chauvin.
“I sat in the courtroom and looked at the officer who took my brother’s life. I just really want that officer to know how much love Floyd had,” she read from a prepared statement.
Floyd got emotional talking about her brother who she said was very family-oriented. “I miss my brother George,” she said. “That officer took a great man, a great father, a great brother, a great uncle and a great father. … We will never get that back.”
For several hours Monday a group of more than 100 protesters demonstrated outside the Hennepin County Government Center. Artists and activists drenched flowers and mirrors in what appeared to be fake blood.
As the crowd marched toward the courthouse, organizers encouraged the crowd to chant George Floyd’s name and refrains such as “No justice, no peace,” “How do you spell racist? MPD,” and “Indict, convict, send those killer cops to jail.” The crowd heard emotional speeches from speakers including relatives of other Black people killed by police.
Ilhan Idd, 20, said her family was traumatized after her 23-year-old brother, Dolal Idd, was killed by Minneapolis police in December. She said she came to the courthouse Monday “to fight for justice for not just my brother but every Black soul that was taken by a cop.”
Donna Morris and her anti-gun violence organization Mother’s Love have been following the legal developments of the trial so they can help keep peace in the streets. If the trial is delayed, it will only create more tension in a community that is already on edge, Morris said.
“Delaying the inevitable, which is the trial, … only serves to continue to keep the communities under stress,” she said. “Not only are we dealing with the trial, we’re dealing with the effects of the trial.”
Morris said residents are also concerned about having to navigate protests downtown and worry about property being destroyed during demonstrations. “We don’t want our communities burned down, we don’t want our businesses burned down,” she said.
Contributing: Kevin McCoy, USA TODAY; The Associated Press