MINNEAPOLIS — Jury selection ended Tuesday in Derek Chauvin’s murder trial, with three jurors seated and six others dismissed while appellate issues in the case still loom.
The second day of jury selection in Hennepin County District Court is set to start Wednesday morning. The pace of selection puts the process in a strong position to end in time for the trial to start in earnest on March 29, as Judge Peter Cahill scheduled.
Tuesday’s proceedings began about 8 a.m. with the sorting of more legal issues in connection with the trial of the fired police officer charged with pinning George Floyd by the neck to the pavement at a south Minneapolis street corner, killing him.
Defense attorney Eric Nelson hit established themes in much of his questioning, among them: how to figure out who is right in a conflict between two people’s version of events, whether people of color are treated unfairly in the American justice system and one’s ability to change an opinion based on facts.
He also probed would-be jurors about the widely viewed witness video that showed Chauvin detaining Floyd on the pavement for more than nine minutes until he was rendered unconscious and how that might weigh on their ability to be impartial when hearing all the evidence.
Of those questioned, most said they had a negative impression of Chauvin to some degree because of the video. One wasn’t questioned about the video but was dismissed after expressing a strong distrust of police.
The first seated juror, a white man, was selected after being questioned at length by Nelson and for a few minutes by the prosecution. He revealed that he is a chemist who lives in Minneapolis and because of his profession, “I consider myself a pretty logical person. … I rely on facts and logic and what’s in front of me. Opinion and facts are important distinctions for me.”
He said he has a generally favorable view of the Black Lives Matter cause but added that “I think all lives matter equally” and that the “Blue Lives Matter” message among police advocates is a counter viewpoint that isn’t necessary. He said he has not viewed the video of Floyd’s death.
After checking with the defense and the prosecution, Cahill told the juror to report back to court in about three weeks and be prepared for proceedings to last about four weeks.
The second seated juror, a woman and person of color originally from northern Minnesota, told Nelson she was “super excited” to receive her jury summons because she realizes it’s her civic duty. She said she was eager to serve regardless of the case, but especially in Chauvin’s trial, given the gravity of it.
“It’s a very important case, not just for Hennepin County … but nationwide,” she said. “It’s just something everyone’s heard about, talked about … No matter the decision, people are still going to talk about it.”
Like many of the others before her, she said that viewing the video of Floyd’s arrest left her with a “somewhat negative impression of Mr. Chauvin. … No one wants to see someone die.”
The woman also said she sees racial disparity in the justice system. In connection with that belief, she added that she agrees somewhat that Minneapolis police officers at times use too much force against Black suspects and has heard those experiences from people she knows.
At the same time, she considers herself a “go with the flow” type, and assured both Nelson and assistant prosecutor Steve Schleicher that she can be open-minded about the evidence presented at trial. The woman, the niece of a Brainerd law enforcement officer, was then seated.
The day’s final prospective juror, a man who works as an auditor, was chosen for the jury after expressing confidence that he could be fair. He said he saw at least portions of the oft-referenced video and had a somewhat negative view of Chauvin because “someone died, and that’s obviously not a positive thing.”
At the same time, the man continued, he said he can examine the evidence “from a viewpoint of the law” before deciding whether or not the defendant is guilty.
Much of Monday’s court time was spent on the judge hearing from attorneys about whether a third-degree murder count needs to be reinstated before the lawyers start screening potential jurors before a global television audience.
So far, Chauvin stands charged solely with second-degree murder and manslaughter in the death of Floyd, a Black man whose death under the knee of a white officer sparked days of rioting in Minneapolis and St. Paul, along with protests around the country.
Nelson spent much of his time questioning the first potential juror, a married mother of three from Mexico, about the witness video that showed Chauvin pressing his knee against Floyd’s neck.
The woman acknowledged that when she first saw that video she recalled Floyd saying “I can’t breathe” and thinking at that moment ” ‘He can’t do that. Hey, don’t do that or he’s going to die. I feel that’s not fair. We are humans.’ “
Nelson asked the woman whether she could change her mind about that video upon hearing all the evidence during the trial, and she responded that she could. However, Nelson did point out that she answered on her questionnaire before reporting Tuesday that she wanted to be on the jury because “I would like to give my opinion of the unjust death of George Floyd.”
Nearly an hour into the selection, Cahill told the first potential juror to be questioned that she was dismissed.
Afterward, he told the attorneys that he received a text from a retired judge indicating he could see the potential juror’s reflection in the plexiglass. He said the issue would be resolved over the lunch break.
The third possible juror didn’t last long, being excused by the judge after she said under oath that “I think I could try to be impartial. I don’t know that I could promise to be impartial.”
She went on to explain that “there was a very clear action that was taken. No matter what kind of dress you put on the action, it happened. … I think I definitely hope for a specific outcome, and I don’t think that will change.”
The defense struck the fourth would-be juror, a Hispanic man who recently moved from Southern California with experience practicing martial arts. Schleicher challenged the strike, noting the man was the second of four questioned who is a person of color to be dismissed by Chauvin’s side. Attorneys must give a race-neutral justification for striking jurors.
Nelson pushed back and said the man’s practice of martial arts worried him, as the potential juror said he believed Chauvin’s knee pressed into Floyd’s neck was an illegal move. Cahill backed the dismissal but pointed to the prospective juror acknowledging that he does not come to the case with a presumption of innocence required of jurors.
Schleicher said that experience in martial arts could result in the dismissal of a disproportionate number of potential Hispanic jurors, who are more likely to practice Brazilian jujitsu.
“It’s not that, and I didn’t say that,” Cahill said. “It’s not specifically jujitsu training; what I hear him saying is that he has an opinion he is going to carry into the courtroom and you have to convince him otherwise.”
The final prospective juror before a midday break said he has watched the witness video several times and came away with a negative view of Chauvin’s actions that day.
Nelson asked the man what he would do with an unlimited amount of money to improve the justice system, and he replied that he’s write a check to the Floyd family for their loss but more broadly “probably (for) police training or reform, procedures.”
Prosecutor Schleicher zeroed in on this would-be juror saying in his questionnaire response that he strongly agreed it is wrong to second-guess an officer for actions while on-duty.
“The vast majority of the cases they’ve got to make split-second decisions,” he said Tuesday. “I respect their service and how they protect the community.”
But despite also assuring his impartiality as a juror, the prosecution struck the candidate from joining the jury.
Cahill quickly dismissed one would-be juror because of the man’s concern for his safety as a juror whose name would be publicized eventually. The judge also recognized the man’s profession in accounting and didn’t want him working late hours away from the courtroom during what is typically a busy time of year for him.
He was followed by a 19-year-old trade school student who was reluctant to be a part of the trial given its international attention. He was reluctant to trust police officers in part because his father had been racially profiled.
“The whole process is just making me uncomfortable,” he said. ” … I think this whole thing is just very divisive.”
Cahill dismissed the man, citing that his difficulty believing law enforcement officers who testify on behalf of Chauvin. The judge also noted how overwhelmed the man appeared to be by the entire process.
Prosecutors called the Court of Appeals and filed a motion Monday asking them to postpone the trial but had not heard back by the end of the day. Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office, which is running the prosecution, wants to reinstate the third-degree murder count against Chauvin based on a Feb. 1 Court of Appeals ruling in the unrelated murder case and conviction of former Minneapolis police Officer Mohamed Noor.
The lead prosecutor, Assistant Attorney General Frank, argued that Chauvin’s trial should be suspended since Nelson has asked the state Supreme Court to review how the Noor decision might apply to Chauvin’s case.
Amid motions hashed out Tuesday morning was discussion of the scope of testimony allowed from Minneapolis firefighter Genevieve Hansen, who was caught on bystander video attempting to intervene while off-duty and repeatedly urging the officers to check Floyd’s pulse and render aid.
“While she may be certified to perform CPR, she is not a pathologist, she is not a physician of any nature and whether or not she would have prevented Mr. Floyd’s death had she intervened would be speculative,” Nelson said.
Sundeep Iyer, one of the co-prosecutors on the case, said that Hansen would only testify to her observations that day.
“We’re only offering her narrow belief that if she was able to intervene, if someone was able to intervene, to explain her observations,” Iyer said.
The judge ruled that Hansen could testify to what she observed but could not speculate on whether Floyd could be saved.
Cahill also ruled there be no reference during the trial to Chauvin’s firing the day after Floyd died. The judge said that anyone speaking in court must use “ended his employment” and not “terminated” in reference to when Chauvin became a former officer. Cahill said he didn’t want the firing to suggest Chauvin’s guilt to the jurors.
Also Tuesday, one of the prosecutors participating remotely for the first time was admonished by Cahill for referring to the defendant as “Chauvin.” The judge interrupted him with a stern warning to address everyone by title, so it’s “Mr. Chauvin.”
Former Officers J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao are scheduled to go on trial together Aug. 23 on charges of aiding and abetting and murder and manslaughter in the death the 46-year-old Floyd, whose detention was captured on witness video seen around the world.
(Star Tribune staff writers Chao Xiong and Rochelle Olson contributed to this report.)