MINNEAPOLIS — Jury selection began Monday for a former Minneapolis police officer charged with murder and manslaughter in George Floyd’s death. Derek Chauvin’s trial, which is expected to last weeks, will be overseen by an experienced judge and argued by skilled attorneys on both sides. It will be streamed online for the world to see because the COVID-19 pandemic has limited who can attend.
Floyd, who was black, died May 25 after Chauvin pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck while Floyd was handcuffed and pleading that he couldn’t breathe. Among the key figures and elements at trial:
COVID-19, CAMERAS and COURT SECURITY
Chauvin’s trial, one of the highest-profile criminal cases in Minnesota history, is taking place during a global pandemic that has had a dramatic impact. Precautions to guard against the spread of COVID-19 have limited courtroom space, leading the judge to try Chauvin ahead of three other fired officers charged with aiding and abetting.
And because the pandemic all but wiped out the possibility of public seating, the judge is allowing the trial to be broadcast and livestreamed — a rare occurrence in a state that doesn’t routinely allow cameras in court.
City, county and state officials are preparing for any sort of reaction that trial testimony or a verdict might elicit. Barbed and razor wire and concrete barriers surround the courthouse, and strict security is in place to protect trial proceedings. City and state leaders want to avoid a repeat of last year’s rioting that destroyed dozens of businesses and a police station.
Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill is respected and has a reputation as a no-nonsense, fair judge. He started in the county public defender’s office in 1984 and worked for 10 years as a prosecutor, serving as top advisor to U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar when she was the county’s head prosecutor.
Cahill has been a judge since 2007 and has been chief judge. He’s known for being decisive and direct. He held firm on his decision to allow video cameras at the trial over the state’s objections, and to starting the trial in March despite prosecutors’ concerns about the pandemic. He also refused to reinstate a third-degree murder charge, sending prosecutors to the Court of Appeals — which ruled Friday that he must reconsider that decision — and denied defense requests to move the trial out of Hennepin County.
Days after Floyd’s death, Minnesota’s governor announced that Attorney General Keith Ellison would take the lead on prosecuting the case. The county prosecutor’s office is still part of the case, but the unusual move was a win for local civil rights advocates who said longtime Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman didn’t have the trust of the black community.
Ellison, the state’s first African American elected attorney general, previously served in Congress and worked as a defense attorney.
His team of prosecutors includes Matthew Frank, an experienced attorney in Ellison’s office who recently won a guilty plea in the case of Lois Riess, a Minnesota woman who got life in prison without parole for killing her husband in 2018. Riess became notorious after she fled the state, killed a woman in Florida, and assumed her identity before she was captured.
Also on board are: Jerry Blackwell, who last year won a posthumous pardon for a black man wrongly convicted of rape before the infamous Duluth lynchings of 1920; and Steven Schleicher, a former federal prosecutor who led prosecution of the man who kidnapped and killed Jacob Wetterling in 1989.
Chauvin, 44, started working for the Minneapolis Police Department in 2001, making him by far the most experienced of the four officers involved in Floyd’s arrest.
He was fired soon after bystander video of Floyd’s arrest emerged the following day. He was charged days later, and moved to a state prison for security reasons. He posted $1 million bond in October and was allowed to live out of state due to safety concerns.
His attorney, Eric Nelson, is among a handful of attorneys in Minnesota who often represent police officers. One of his bigger cases involved Amy Senser, the wife of former Minnesota Vikings tight end Joe Senser, who was convicted in the 2011 hit-and-run death of a Minneapolis chef. Nelson argued that Senser should be sentenced to probation, but a judge gave her 41 months in prison.
Nelson also has tried murder cases. He helped win an acquittal for a Minnesota man who was charged with fatally shooting his unarmed neighbor in 2017. He also won an acquittal for a Wisconsin man who testified that he feared for his safety when he fatally stabbed a man who confronted him in 2015.
Nelson has not said whether Chauvin will testify during his trial, but many legal observers predict Chauvin will take the stand.
Floyd, 46, moved to Minneapolis from Houston several years before his death in hopes of finding work but had lost his job as a restaurant bouncer due to COVID-19. On May 25, an employee at a Minneapolis grocery store called the police saying Floyd tried to pass a counterfeit $20 bill.
Floyd left behind a young daughter, who lives with her mother in Houston. His friend Christopher Harris told The Associated Press last year that Floyd “was looking to start over fresh, a new beginning.”
Chauvin’s fate will be decided by 12 Hennepin County residents, whose names will be kept confidential until further court order. Two alternate jurors will be selected to listen to testimony, but will not be part of deliberations unless needed.
Prospective jurors were sent questionnaires to determine how much they have heard about the case and whether they had formed any opinions. Prosecutors can block up to nine potential jurors without giving a reason, while the defense will be allowed up to 15 objections, with no reason given.
Legal experts say since pretrial publicity has been so pervasive, both sides will seek jurors who are willing to have open minds.
“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 in a recent interview. “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.”