Chauvin trial: Local lawyers reflect on jury selection

Two lawyers help understand the impact of the city’s settlement, the makeup of the jury and what to keep an eye on as the trial begins Monday.

Samantha Woodward

The jurors who will decide the verdict in the trial for former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin have been chosen after more than two weeks and dozens of interviews.

On Monday, the trial will truly begin.

Former Hennepin County chief public defender Mary Moriarty and deputy director for community legal services at the Legal Rights Center Andrew Gordon helped break down jury selection and the start of the trial.

The $27 million civil settlement and questions of impartiality

The defense and the prosecution conducted two weeks of questioning aimed at finding fair and impartial jurors to serve on the case. However, Moriarty said that in such a high-profile case, it is difficult to find people that fit those criteria.

“Everyone wants to be fair and impartial,” she said. “It’s a tough issue when everybody’s heard about or seen some type of publicity about this case.”

The court ran into issues of potential jurors’ abilities to remain impartial after the city of Minneapolis announced its historic civil settlement of $27 million with the family of George Floyd. It was publicized widely on the fifth day of jury proceedings and unseated two of the jurors that had been chosen at that time.

Moriarty said she predicted the effect of the news on potential jurors’ impartiality would go one of two ways: it would either imply Chauvin’s guilt or make them think the payment was enough justice for the family.

She said that confusion about the effect of the civil settlement on the criminal trial had an impact on the general public’s knowledge of the trial, even though the two cases are separate and have no official effect on one another.

“Even if they are completely separate, there were some jurors who said, ‘Well, it certainly seems to send a message that you know about what the City Council thinks,’” she said.

Additionally, she said this raised the issue that when the jury attempts to reach a verdict, the settlement could be the tipping point for jurors struggling to make a decision.

“You don’t really know and you never really know if anybody can truly set that aside,” Moriarty said.

Jury makeup

The court received backlash from community members due to concerns of a potential lack of diversity on the jury.

After whittling down a large jury pool of hundreds of people, Gordon, from the Legal Rights Center, said he is surprised by the amount of racial diversity among those who were seated. The jury includes six white women, three white men, three Black men, two multiracial women and one Black woman. One of them will be excused and two will be alternates.

Potential juror 76 detailed his negative experiences with police officers and insensitive behavior by them following the death of a man in his neighborhood. Even though he said he experiences racism daily, he said it would not impact his impartiality on the case. He was struck after questioning.

Moriarty said that these proceedings have raised the issue of what it means to be “fair.”

“Why is somebody who lives in the suburbs, who has never met anybody who has been discriminated against, why are they more fair than a Black teacher who has seen things that MPD has done and still says he’s gonna do his very best to set that aside because he understands the specific issues in this case. Why is it fair that juror 76 got removed?”

Gordon struggled with the court’s goal of a fair and impartial juror, defined as someone who is lacking in a strong opinion about something that pertains to the case.

He cannot think of an argument for why the court would “end up picking a jury of individuals who, for some reason, haven’t really sat down to grapple with some of the major concerns of modern America.”

What lies ahead and what to look out for

In a historic move for a Minnesota court, Judge Peter Cahill is allowing the trial to be livestreamed across the world.

“It’s not often that anyone sees jury selection,” Moriarty said. “Some of the issues that have come up during jury selection have given the public great insight into some of the issues [lawyers] see every day.”

She said that because of the controversial nature of the cause of Floyd’s death, the medical examiner’s testimony is going to be “critical.”

“The defense is apparently going to argue that George Floyd died because of his heart, the ingestion of drugs and the fact that he was struggling against the police,” Moriarty said. “Yet, the medical examiners are going to testify that that was not the case.”

She also said that Minneapolis Police Department policies, whether or not Chauvin was following them, will play a key role in justifying for or against Chauvin’s conduct in the encounter with Floyd.

Moriarty said she anticipates the jury to struggle with the difference between a depraved mind, which could lead to third-degree murder, and culpable negligence, which would fit second-degree manslaughter.

For the depraved mind definition, the jury would have to find that Chauvin was lacking morality and was indifferent to human life. This is different from culpable negligence, which is when one acts recklessly without reason or caution, causing harm to others.

Cahill is aiming to limit expert witnesses’ interpretation of Floyd’s behavior during his May 2019 arrest. He ruled that the testimony of forensic psychiatrist Dr. Sarah Vinson can only be used to help interpret how Floyd died, not his mental state. Gordon said Cahill is attempting to avoid issues that could later be appealed.

“The issue is not whether [Floyd’s struggle with the police] happened before,” Moriarty said. “The issue is, what was the reaction of the police officers who encountered him exhibiting this kind of behavior?”

Gordon said the biggest thing for the public to understand is that the evidence shown to the jury is limited, and what they are shown will determine their deliberation.

“The general person who’s been paying attention, they actually may end up knowing more about what happened on 38th and Chicago that day than the jury,” he said.

Proceedings are expected to resume on Monday 9 a.m., starting with opening statements.

“It’s going to hold a place in history for a long time,” Gordon said. “The nation is watching, and I know Minneapolis is watching, and people have a lot invested in what’s going to happen in that courtroom.”