Jury selection in the highly-anticipated trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin began in district court on Tuesday, even as the judge in the case awaits higher courts’ rulings that could halt the proceedings. Chauvin faces charges in the killing of George Floyd last Memorial Day.
The trial has gotten off to a tentative start, with both the prosecution and defense filing appeals after a higher court ruled on Friday that Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill should reconsider his original decision to dismiss a third-degree murder charge against the former Minneapolis police officer.
At times during Tuesday morning’s proceedings, Cahill paused to let attorneys check their phones for possible word of rulings from either the state appeals court or the Minnesota Supreme Court.
The first panel of potential jurors entered the courtroom around 9 a.m. local time. After Cahill introduced the trial participants, most of the panel left, and the judge administered an oath to a woman he referred to as Juror #1.
Under questioning, Juror No. 1 said she was concerned that her fluency in English which is not her first language, might affect her ability to serve on the jury. She also told Chauvin’s defense attorney, Eric Nelson, that she has limited free time, as she’s a working mother.
The woman then said that after seeing video of the encounter that led to Floyd’s death, she formed an opinion of what happened. She saw Chauvin holding the other man down with his knee as Floyd said he couldn’t breathe, she said.
“That’s not fair, because we are humans, you know?” the woman added.
In response to questions from Chauvin’s attorney, Juror No. 1 later said she would be willing to change her mind if evidence in the trial required it. She also said she needed help from her husband and Google to translate parts of the questionnaire that all potential jurors received.
The form also asked recipients why they would want to be on the jury in the case. The woman confirmed to Nelson that she wrote in reply, “Because I would like to give my opinion of the unjust death of George Floyd.”
Shortly afterward, Nelson requested a sidebar with the judge and prosecutors, and Cahill told the woman she is excused from the jury. Because of COVID-19 concerns, such discussions take place over special headsets, which the three parties pull on as they sit in the courtroom.
Juror No. 2, who said he works as a chemist, then took the oath. At one point, Nelson asked him if he believes Chauvin is responsible for Floyd’s death.
“I don’t think I can say one way or another. I mean, not here,” the man replied. “You know, maybe at the time, I had my opinion. But with some distance, I don’t think I can say.”
As Nelson concluded his questions for the man, he noted that some people respond to jury questionnaires in an attempt to elude jury duty – and some reply in an intentional effort to get on the jury.
“Would you describe yourself as either of those?” he asked the man.
“My answers were truthful. That’s how I would describe my answers,” Juror No. 2 replied.
The man also said he and his fiancée had visited the site of Floyd’s death, explaining that his death was “a transformative event” for Minneapolis. And he added that the couple had been thinking about moving into a nearby area.
After a brief round of questioning by the prosecution, the man was chosen as the first juror for Chauvin’s trial.
“You will be on this jury,” Cahill said, telling the man to return to the court on March 29. The judge also instructed him, “You’re not an investigator,” telling the man to try to avoid all media coverage about the case.
As the trial loomed, demonstrations against police brutality and racial inequality have regained momentum in Minneapolis. Videos show that Chauvin, who is white, kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes before he died. Floyd was Black.
Chauvin’s defense team is asking the Minnesota Supreme Court to review the appeals court ruling, hoping their client can avoid the additional charge. Chauvin currently faces charges of second-degree unintentional murder and second-degree manslaughter in Floyd’s death.
But in their own appeal, prosecutors are asking the state appeals court to delay the trial, saying Cahill’s district court does not have full jurisdiction until the Supreme Court has ruled. To proceed with any substantive matters before the murder charge issue is settled, the prosecution warns, could open the door to an appeal after the trial is over.
Cahill has disagreed with part of the prosecution’s argument, saying that in homicide cases, there is precedent for adding or omitting a charge after a jury is selected. But he also acknowledged that the higher court should be given time to rule on the jurisdiction issue.
Jury selection had been poised to begin on Monday, with a pool of potential jurors at the courthouse. But the judge, citing the appeals, said he had no choice but to send the jury pool home for the day.
Despite the initial delay, the court was able to resolve a number of preliminary motions on Monday afternoon, starting to set the scope of testimony and evidence for the trial. And 16 people were dismissed from the jury pool, based on their responses to a 14-page questionnaire they filled out. The form asked potential jurors questions such as what already know about Floyd’s death, whether they took part in a protest, and how they get their news.
The two sides also agreed that after a witness testifies, they can’t be called back to the stand if they have watched the trial. But expert witnesses would be allowed to watch other experts’ testimony in case they’re called upon to provide a rebuttal.
The witness list in the Chauvin case is long: 362 people are on the state’s list of potential witnesses, and 400 “all told,” accounting for duplicates from the defense side, Cahill said during Monday’s hearing.
The prosecution also agreed that no expert will be allowed to compare Floyd’s death to “to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on the ground that such analogy is prejudicial,” as member station Minnesota Public Radio reported.
Chauvin is attending the court proceedings in person, sitting near Nelson at a partitioned table, wearing a coat and tie and a black face mask.
Jury selection in Chauvin’s trial is expected to last several weeks, as the judge and attorneys select 12 jurors and up to four alternates. Opening arguments aren’t expected in the case until the week of March 29. Chauvin’s trial is expected to last through much of April.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison is leading the state’s case against Chauvin. The former police officer’s defense team is led by Nelson.
Floyd’s death inflamed nationwide protests that quickly spread around the world, fueled by the dramatic video in which Chauvin is seen pinning Floyd to the asphalt. “Please, please. I can’t breathe,” Floyd repeatedly said before he died.
Chauvin and the other three police officers who were at the scene — Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas K. Lane — were fired one day after Floyd was killed. They were arrested several days later. Thao, Kueng and Lane face charges of aiding and abetting murder.