ST. PAUL — In the nine months since an ex-Minneapolis Police officer knelt on his neck for nearly 9 minutes, George Floyd's death has driven spirited policy discussions in government chambers, marches down city streets, civil unrest and conversations at dinner tables around the country and the world.
But soon, it will be the voices of 12 jurors that will have the final say.
The fate of Derek Chauvin, the ex-Minneapolis Police officer who knelt on Floyd's neck, will be in the hands of 16 Hennepin County residents who will be tasked with putting aside their own preexisting knowledge of and opinions on the case and, determine whether or not Chauvin is guilty of murder in the eyes of the law.
Chauvin’s trial is scheduled to begin Monday, March 8 with jury selection, which attorneys estimate will take approximately three weeks. The 16 jurors chosen (12 seated, four alternates) will hail from Hennepin County: The county where Floyd, a Black man, died that became the epicenter of 2020’s renewed debate on policing and racism in America.
The former police officer faces second-degree murder and manslaughter charges. Friday, March 5, the Minnesota Court of Appeals said a district court needs to reconsider the addition of a third-degree murder charge against the former Minneapolis officer. That ruling could delay the trial's start.
David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University, said in a phone interview that he thinks “it’s going to be difficult” to seat a jury. It’s not like typical criminal trials where prospective jurors might have no knowledge of or connection to the case; between extensive media coverage and public discourse, as well as proximity to the scene and resulting protests and riots, you’d be hard-pressed to find Hennepin County residents with no knowledge of the case.
“I think at the end of the day, what (the court is) going to do is not say, ‘Have you not heard of this incident,’ but they’re going to have to try to figure out, can they get (...) 16 people who can say that, ‘I can judge this just on the facts that are here,’” Schultz said. “That is still a very difficult thing to do and we just don't know. We’re going to find out starting next Monday how complicated and how difficult it’s going to be, whether or not it’s going to be possible.”
Chauvin's defense team has tried to argue that it will be impossible to seat a fair jury in Hennepin County, motioning in September to change venues. But presiding Judge Peter Cahill denied that motion in November, saying, "no corner of the State of Minnesota has been shielded from pretrial publicity regarding the death of George Floyd.”
In December, the state court made public the six-part questionnaire sent to prospective jurors used to help decide who will be further questioned in court, then seated. The Minnesota State Court declined to say how many potential jurors were sent the questionnaire, calling that information "nonpublic."
The 12-pages of questions, ranging from their personal background, to their media habits and histories with law enforcement, offer a glimpse into the criteria the defense and prosecutorial teams will use to measure potential jurors’ fairness. Immediately, the potential jurors are asked what they know of the case based on media reports, and their “general impressions” of the defendants and Floyd.
The survey delves into the personal: Potential jurors will be asked if they or their loved ones work in professions (such as law enforcement or civil rights advocacy) that could impact their views of the case; if they have been victims of crime; if their property was damaged during protests in 2020, if they marched in racial justice protests over the past year and if so, did they carry a sign and what did it say?
They will even be asked about their media habits: What newspapers they read, news channels they watch, podcasts they listen to and social media sites they frequent.
To protect jurors’ privacy, Cahill ordered in November that the court will not make public identifying information of the prospective and selected jurors until the end of the trial and deliberations, and potential jurors will be sequestered during their questioning. Jury selection, and the full trial, will be held at the Hennepin County Government Center in downtown Minneapolis. Already, fencing surrounds the government complex, and access throughout the area will be extremely limited to protect participants and observers.
In addition to safety concerns, access to the courtroom for the public, media, and even the families of Chauvin and Floyd will also be strictly limited due to the coronavirus pandemic. Face masks are required, as well, with few exceptions.
At stake in the trial is not only Chauvin’s own verdict, but public perception of the criminal justice system, policing and racism in America. If the jury is perceived by the public to be skewed or not representative, Schultz said the court of public opinion is sure to make its own determination of whether the trial was fair — and jurors may know that going in.
Under particularly intense scrutiny will be the racial makeup of the jury. It is unconstitutional for a court to refuse to seat a potential juror solely on the basis of their gender or race. With race being a key component to how the public views Floyd's death, Schultz said the perception of a racially fair jury will be essential in order for the public to have faith in the trial's legitimacy.
"I think the challenge is going to be getting that appropriate racial balance both from a constitutional perspective, as well as a public legitimacy or public perception aspect," he said. "I don't know in the court of public opinion what the right composition is, but clearly, its composition I think is going to affect how people judge the case."
Schultz said the last time a trial held the same gravity, public interest and publicity was maybe the trial of OJ Simpson in 1995 — a case that he said marked a cultural shift in the American public’s view of the criminal justice system. He thinks Chauvin’s trial could have a similar historic and precedent-setting impact on public opinion and the criminal justice system.
“We’ve had big trials since then, of course,” Schultz said. “But this has taken on a mass culture, pop culture interest. And separating us out almost 30 years (since Simpson’s trial) is Google, Facebook.”
“We’re looking at an incredibly different world for this trial and I think we’re going to learn some good and some bad from what happens here in terms of how to move forward,” he said.
Three other officers charged in Floyd's death — Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao — will be tried in August.
Contact Sarah Mearhoff at firstname.lastname@example.org or 610-790-4992.