Reflections on Chauvin jury selection: Can anyone really be impartial?
In this screen grab from video, Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill swears in a potential juror as he presides over jury selection in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on, March 9, 2021, in Minneapolis. Chauvin is charged in the May 25, 2020 death of George Floyd. | Court TV via AP

The commitment and ability to maintain impartiality looms large in the jury selection process in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged with murdering George Floyd.

When the judge swears in a potential juror, he asks whether they can maintain impartiality and render judgment based on the facts, evidence, and the law as heard only in the courtroom. Often he adds: Can you put aside your opinions about the death of George Floyd and your opinion of the defendant?

Since nearly all one million adult residents of Hennepin County, from which the jury pool is randomly selected, have been exposed to media and video about the case, the question arises: Can anyone really be impartial, even if they say so?

Week one of jury selection ended Friday, March 12, with seven jurors selected of the 14 required, which will include two alternates. The court anticipates a jury will be seated before March 29, when the trial is scheduled to begin. All jurors will remain anonymous during and after the trial to protect them and their families. Jury selection and the trial are being broadcast live online, so in both the selection process and the trial, jurors are not visible on courtroom cameras and only referred to by a number.

Jury pool members received a 13-page questionnaire several months ago, the answers to which were then shared with both the defense and prosecution. Among the dozens of questions asked of potential jurors were their reaction to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, their impressions of Floyd and Chauvin, their media habits, what media they have viewed about the case, whether or not they have regular contact with any law enforcement, and their opinions of the justice system.

One prospective juror, Number 40, a white male, marked on his questionnaire that he had a strongly negative view of Chauvin because he had “seen the look on Chauvin’s face,” referring to the video image of Chauvin as he pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. Defense attorney Erik Nelson read a Facebook post the juror had written in reaction to Floyd’s death that included his account of visiting the George Floyd memorial site at the intersection of Chicago Avenue and 38th Street where Floyd’s life ended.

In the post, Number 40 called the site “sacred ground.” Given his view toward the defendant and his feelings about police misconduct, he was asked by the defense if he could face his wife, family, and friends, if the instructions of the judge meant he could not vote to convict Chauvin. “I think I could,” he replied. After a long interview period, the defense used one of their 15 peremptory challenges to dismiss the juror.

Another juror, Number 37, described by the media pool reporter in the courtroom as a Black woman, said in response to questions by Nelson, that, “I cannot unsee that video,” referring to the video posted to Facebook by a bystander documenting the last breaths taken by Floyd under Chauvin’s knee. During questioning she said was a single mother of two without an extensive local support network. The jury, as the judge told her, is likely to be sequestered in a hotel during deliberations until a verdict is reached. She expressed this would be a hardship were it to last more than a week. In the end, the defense used a peremptory challenge and she was excused.

Juror pool member Number 39, identified as Hispanic, was also struck by the defense. Asked for his impressions of the video showing the officers ending Floyd’s life, he did not mince words: “The video reminded me of a war scene like that in World War II.”  Asked about his impression of the MPD, he said the “police behave more like an occupying force.” He remarked when asked if could still be impartial, he replied, “I do think I can do it.” That was not good enough for the defense.

These three accounts are similar to perhaps three-quarters of the 30-plus prospective jurors interviewed the first week. It raises the question: What does diversity mean if those most critical of the murder will not be on the jury? What challenges are presented in selecting juries, not just in this high-profile case, but in a society that is increasingly multilingual, immigrant, and at the same time exhibits varying degrees of racial biases among the still dominant white citizenry? An article later this week will feature interviews with scholars and activists on inherent racial and class biases in the U.S. jury system.

Of the seven jurors seated so far, three are identified as white males, one white female, one of Hispanic origin, a woman self-identified as mixed-race, and a Black immigrant who arrived in the United States 13 years ago.

In this image taken from video, defense attorney Eric Nelson, left, and defendant, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, right, listen to Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill during pretrial motions, March 11, 2021. | Court TV via AP

Number 36, who was selected, is a man identified as Hispanic. He said he was “excited” when he received the letter that he was on the Chauvin jury panel. During the exchange with lawyers, he remarked he is an avid listener of true crime podcasts while on his delivery driver job. He did say he had a very negative view of Chauvin based on the video. Still, when asked, he said he could be impartial and keep in mind the presumption of innocence during the trial.

Number 2, who was selected, identified as white, is a chemist and environmental scientist at a local firm. In the course of the interview, he said, “I don’t believe that an MPD officer is more likely to use force with Black people.” Yet, at the same time, he said he thinks that the criminal justice system is biassed against people of color. On the questionnaire he marked he was not that favorable toward Black Lives Matter, expressing during the interview it was because of his perception of BLM tactics. He prefers, he offered, the phrase “all lives matter.”

The woman self-identified as mixed-race, Number 9, was just one of two or three interviewed that hoped they would be selected. She told the judge she was “super excited” to receive the summons for this jury panel. She noted in her questionnaire that she had an uncle who is a police officer that she saw at family gatherings. The prosecution’s attorney asked if her uncle’s opinion of the jury’s decision is important to her. “His opinion is important to me, but not so much it would sway my opinion either way.”

From this observer’s perspective, a common thread among the selected jurors is that they seemed less conflicted about how their family members or friends may react to their decision regarding the verdict.

As the March 29 start of the trial approaches, People’s World will examine how established law and precedent affect deliberations, the decision-making of jurors, and the conduct of the trial. Although 50 million people reportedly have watched the video of the last minutes of Floyd’s life fading away under Chauvin’s knee, whether the law allows a jury to reach a guilty verdict remains to be seen. This is all the more reason that activists seeking justice for George Floyd know that the pressure from the street may be the deciding factor leading to convicting Chauvin.


CONTRIBUTOR

Wayne Nealis
Wayne Nealis

Wayne Nealis is a left political activist and writer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, focusing on communications and strategies for social change. He was a toolmaker and union activist in a Minnesota industrial union. Nealis earned a degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota and practiced journalism and public and media relations.

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