MINNEAPOLIS — The judge overseeing the trial of a former Minneapolis police officer accused in the death of George Floyd on Monday paused jury selection for at least a day while an appeal proceeds over the possible reinstatement of a third-degree murder charge.
As hundreds of protesters gathered outside the courthouse to call for the conviction of Derek Chauvin, Judge Peter Cahill said he does not have jurisdiction to rule on whether the third-degree murder charge should be reinstated against the former officer while the issue is being appealed. But he said prosecutors’ arguments that the whole case would be impacted were “tenuous.”
Cahill planned to go ahead with the trial anyway and initially ruled jury selection would begin as scheduled on Monday. But after prosecutors filed a request with the Court of Appeals to put the case on hold, the judge sent the potential jurors home for the day. Cahill called a recess to give the Court of Appeals time to respond, but planned to bring attorneys back into the courtroom Monday afternoon to deal with other matters.
Cahill said the trial would proceed unless the higher courts told him to stop.
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 appellate ruling. He has 30 days to seek a review.
For the unintentional second-degree murder charge, prosecutors have 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. For third-degree murder, they must prove that Chauvin’s actions caused Floyd’s death, and that his actions were reckless and without regard for human life.
Floyd was declared dead May 25 after Chauvin, who is white, pressed his knee against the handcuffed black man’s neck for about nine minutes, holding his position even after Floyd went limp. Floyd’s death sparked violent protests in Minneapolis and beyond.
Chauvin and three other officers were fired; the others face an August trial on aiding and abetting charges.
Hundreds of people gathered outside the courthouse as proceedings began, many carrying signs that read, “Justice for George Floyd” and “Convict Killer Cops.”
One speaker took a microphone and decried the concrete barriers topped by chain-link fencing, barbed wire and razor wire set up around the courthouse. DJ Hooker, 26, also ridiculed talk of the Chauvin trial as “the trial of the century,” saying the jury simply needs to “do the right thing.”
Then 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. Bridgett Floyd, George Floyd’s sister and founder of the George Floyd Memorial Foundation, sat in the seat allocated to Floyd’s family. No one attended to support Chauvin.
Once jury selection starts, it is expected to take at least three weeks, as prosecutors and defense attorneys try to weed out people who may be biased against them.
“You don’t want jurors who are completely blank slates, because that would mean they’re not in tune at all with the world,” Susan Gaertner, a former prosecutor, said. “But what you want is jurors who can set aside opinions that have formed prior to walking into the courtroom and give both sides a fair hearing.”
Nelson earlier argued that pretrial publicity of the case and the subsequent violent unrest in Minneapolis would make it impossible to find an impartial jury in Hennepin County. But Cahill said last year that moving the trial probably wouldn’t cure the problem of a potentially tainted jury pool because “no corner of the State of Minnesota” has been shielded from pretrial publicity.
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.
Mike Brandt, a local defense attorney, said prosecutors will likely seek out jurors who have favorable opinions on the Black Lives Matter movement or might have more outrage over Floyd’s death, while Chauvin’s attorneys would likely favor jurors who support the police.
Unlike typical jury selection proceedings, potential jurors will be questioned individually rather than in a group. The judge, defense attorney and prosecutors will all get to ask questions. The defense can object to up to 15 potential jurors without giving a reason; 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.
Both sides can also argue to dismiss an unlimited number of jurors “for cause,” meaning they must provide a reason why they believe that juror shouldn’t serve. Those situations can get into “some tortured questioning,” Brandt said. It’s up to the judge to decide whether a juror stays or goes.
He said that 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.
“We all walk into these with biases. The question is, can you put those biases aside and be fair in this case,” he said.
Jury selection will end after 14 people are picked — 12 jurors who will deliberate the case and two alternates who won’t be part of deliberations unless needed. The jurors will be escorted to the courthouse daily and sequestered during deliberations. Their names will be kept confidential until further order of the court.
The number of seats in the courtroom has been limited to maintain social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and seats for jurors have been spaced out. Like others in the courtroom, jurors will be required to wear masks.
The earliest opening statements will begin is March 29.