MINNEAPOLIS – The first week of jury selection in the trial of a former Minneapolis police officer charged in George Floyd’s death set patterns for how lawyers dismiss potential jurors they perceive as unfavorable to their side.
The defense is beating up people who tell the court that they already have strong feelings about Derek Chauvin’s guilt. Meanwhile, the prosecution is blocking would-be jurors who seem inclined to give police the benefit of the doubt, or who express doubts about the Black Lives Matter movement.
Although their goals are predictable, there is an art to how both sides carry it out. The attorneys have sought in their questioning to uncover biases against their case by members of the jury, prompting Judge Peter Cahill to fire them and save precious and limited strikes.
They are not always successful.
One candidate wrote in his questionnaire that he had a “very negative” perception of Chauvin after viewing the widely viewed video of Floyd’s arrest. When asked to explain, he said he felt Floyd was treated “worse than an enemy combatant.”
“It reminded me of a war scene,” he said. “What came to mind were images from World War II.”
The man also said he would have a difficult time presuming innocence in this case and based on the video he saw, it would be difficult for him to acquit Chauvin. However, despite his strong emotions and statements, when defense attorney Eric Nelson repeatedly asked if the man could abandon his views and decide the case impartially based on what was said in court, the man said: “Yes,” thwarting Nelson’s attempts to have the Judge dismisses the jury for good cause. “If I couldn’t imagine saying ‘not guilty,’ I wouldn’t be here,” the man said.
Nelson was forced to use a peremptory blow to keep him off the jury. You get 15 such challenges that can be used without giving a reason, as long as it is not solely due to a person’s race. The prosecution gets nine.
The defense attorney had to use another to hit a man who knew many details about the case from various news sources and expressed strong opinions about Floyd’s death in his questionnaire. The man also spoke positively about the protests that followed, saying they solidified the need for change and an end to systemic racism.
Nelson noted that the man had posted on Facebook that he visited 38th and Chicago, the site of the fatal confrontation, which has been turned into a memorial, and called it “holy ground.” Yet like the jury before him, the man kept saying affirmatively that he could put aside all his opinions and weigh the evidence fairly, forcing Nelson to use another peremptory blow.
So far, the majority of the rejected jurors have been people with negative opinions about Chauvin. But some have been hit for leaning toward the police or skeptical of the Black Lives Matter movement.
When questioned by prosecutor Steve Schleicher, a man said he had a “somewhat unfavorable” view of Black Lives Matter. He said he thought the movement has “good intentions, but has been involved in too much destruction in our city,” and disapproves of “BLM” graffiti throughout the city.
It’s “hard not to see those letters,” he said. He also said he has great respect for law enforcement and strongly disagrees with the idea of subtracting funds from the police, a move that gained popularity after Floyd’s death.
Schleicher used one of his blows to fire the man.
By the end of the day on Friday, the defense had used eight peremptory blows compared to five for the prosecution.
Seven jurors sat down for the opening week. Four were white, one was multiracial, one was Hispanic and one was black, according to the judge. The court has two more weeks of jury selection blocked before the opening of arguments scheduled for March 29.
Several jurors have been removed for just cause. Roughly two dozen people in the group were so troublesome just because of the answers they gave in their questionnaires that attorneys on both sides agreed that they should be beaten up without even facing questions.
For those potential jurors who have come to court with a security escort through fences, barbed wire, and barbed wire, some have been excused for cause due to personal hardship.
But most of those fired for good cause had unwavering opinions.
Cahill fired a woman for good cause after she openly said she couldn’t be an impartial jury. The woman said Floyd’s death affected her life, prompting her to volunteer with a nonprofit group that helps vulnerable and underserved children. The judge and the prosecution briefly pressured her to make sure she didn’t change her mind.
“Don’t you think you could give the defendant a fair trial?” Schleicher asked.
“I don’t think I can,” she replied.