The trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, charged in George Floyd's death is forging ahead with jury selection over the next three weeks, even though a looming appellate ruling could halt the case and delay it for weeks or even months as the state tries to add a third-degree murder count.
Prosecutors are asking the Court of Appeals to put Derek Chauvin's trial on hold until the issue of adding the third-degree murder count is resolved. The appeals court did not immediately rule on that request, and Judge Peter Cahill said Monday that he intends to keep the trial on track until he's told to stop.
"Unless the Court of Appeals tells me otherwise, we’re going to keep moving,” he said. Jury selection is expected to begin Tuesday, a day later than scheduled.
Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death. The Court of Appeals last week ordered Cahill to consider reinstating a third-degree murder charge that he had dismissed. Legal experts say reinstating the charge would improve the odds of getting a conviction. Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, said Monday he would ask the state Supreme Court to review the issue.
On Monday, prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed to dismiss 16 of the first 50 jurors they reviewed "for cause,” based on their answers to a lengthy questionnaire. The dismissals weren’t debated in court, but such dismissals can be for a host of reasons, such as views that indicate a juror can’t be impartial.
Floyd was declared dead on May 25 after Chauvin, who is white, pressed his knee against the Black man’s neck for about nine minutes, holding his position even after Floyd went limp. Floyd’s death was captured on a widely seen bystander video and sparked sometimes violent protests in Minneapolis and beyond, leading to a nationwide reckoning on race.
Chauvin and three other officers were fired while the others face an August trial on aiding and abetting charges. Hundreds of people gathered outside the courthouse as proceedings began Monday, many carrying signs that read, "Justice for George Floyd” and "Convict Killer Cops.”
One speaker, DJ Hooker, took a microphone and decried the "cage” of concrete barriers topped by chain-link fencing, barbed wire and razor wire up around the courthouse, part of at least $1 million that has been spent to fortify the downtown area during the trial. Hooker went on to ridicule talk of the Chauvin trial as "the trial of the century,” saying the jury simply needs to "do the right thing.” He led the crowd in chants of, "The whole world is watching!”
Inside the courtroom, Chauvin, in a blue suit and black mask, followed the proceedings attentively, making notes on a legal pad. No one attended to support him. Bridgett Floyd, George Floyd’s sister, sat in the seat allocated to Floyd’s family. Afterward, Bridgett Floyd said the family was glad the trial had finally arrived and is "praying for justice.”
"I sat in the courthouse today and looked at the officer who took my brother’s life,” she said. "That officer took a great man, a great father, a great brother, a great uncle.”
The unintentional second-degree murder charge requires prosecutors to prove that Chauvin’s conduct was a "substantial causal factor” in Floyd’s death and that Chauvin was committing felony assault at the time. The third-degree murder charge would require them to prove that Chauvin caused Floyd’s death through a dangerous act without regard for human life.
Jury selection could take at least three weeks and will end when 14 jurors are picked – 12 who will deliberate and two alternates. The potential jurors, who must be at least 18, U.S. citizens and residents of Hennepin County, were sent questionnaires to determine how much they have heard about the case and whether they’ve formed any opinions.
Besides biographical and demographic information, jurors were asked about prior contacts with police, whether they have protested against police brutality and whether they believe the justice system is fair. Some of the questions get specific, such as how often a potential juror has watched the bystander video of Floyd’s arrest, or whether they carried a sign at a protest and what that sign said.
Jurors will be questioned individually. The judge, defense attorney and prosecutors can all ask questions. In addition to both sides being able to argue for an unlimited number of "for cause” dismissals, the defense can object to up to 15 potential jurors without giving a reason and prosecutors can block up to nine without providing a reason.
Either side can object to these peremptory challenges if they believe the sole reason for disqualifying a juror is race or gender. Even if a juror says they have had a negative interaction with the police or hold negative views about Black Lives Matter, the key will be trying to find out whether they can put those past experiences or opinions aside and be fair, said Mike Brandt, a local defense attorney.
"We all walk into these with biases. The question is, can you put those biases aside and be fair in this case,” he said.
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