The $27 million civil settlement the city of Minneapolis reached last week with the family of George Floyd weighed with heavily upon the ongoing jury selection in the murder trial of fired police officer Derek Chauvin, while the number of jurors chosen grew to nine by the end of proceedings Monday.
Defense attorney Eric Nelson expressed deep concern that jurors already chosen and those yet to be selected will be prejudiced should they learn of the settlement, thereby denying his client his right to a fair trial. During Friday's proceedings, the City Council signed off on the settlement, followed by a widely publicized announcement.
Before the prospective jurors were questioned, Nelson said, "I am gravely concerned with the news that broke on Friday related to the civil settlement. ... The fact that this came in the exact middle of jury selection is perplexing to me, your honor."
He said the settlement's timing was "very suspicious" and "has incredible propensity to taint the jury pool."
Prosecutor Steve Schleicher argued for jury selection to continue uninterrupted, adding, "All I can say to the court is there are some things the state of Minnesota and this prosecution team can control, and there are some things it cannot control. ... We cannot control the civil aspect of the case, we cannot and do not control the Minneapolis City Council, and we certainly cannot and do not control the news cycle."
Judge Peter Cahill agreed that the timing of Friday's announcement was troubling. No city officials have answered questions about why the settlement was disclosed amid jury selection.
"You would agree it's unfortunate, wouldn't you?" Cahill asked Schleicher, "that we have this reported all over the media when we're in the midst of jury selection?"
"I don't know which way it cuts," Schleicher said.
"The problem is that it cuts," Cahill said. "I think the defense has a legitimate concern, and even the state has a concern."
The judge continued: "I wish city officials would stop talking about this case so much. At the same time, I don't find any evil intent that they were trying to tamper with this case. ... The timing is not related to this case."
Cahill said he intends to bring the seven jurors chosen before the settlement announcement back into court so they can be questioned about what they might have heard about it and how it might affect their ability to serve with impartiality on the panel.
The judge said he would consider Nelson's motion for a continuance and the possibility of moving the trial to another location in the state.
Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office is leading the prosecution's case, came in the courtroom just as proceedings were about to resume and said something along the lines of "is there anything else someone would like to not accuse me of?" in reference to when Nelson commented during motions that Ellison's son Jeremiah Ellison is on the council and that the timing of the settlement was suspicious. The council unanimously approved the payout.
Nelson has so far not replied to a request for comment about what Ellison said. Ellison's spokesman, John Stiles, said that the attorney general has nothing more to say about the apparently rhetorical courtroom question. Ellison was not in the courtroom when the afternoon session began. Jeremiah Ellison did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.
The eighth juror to be seated, who is Black and in his 30s, said he has seen the widely viewed bystander's video of Floyd's arrest and said in court that "I don't think [Chauvin] had any intention of harming anybody, but somebody did die. ... Somebody could have still intervened and stop it."
When pressed about assessing Chauvin's intent, the man said he could still "definitely look at [the case] from an objective point of view."
Nelson asked the man, who works in banking and coaches youth sports, that if he ended up voting not guilty "would you be able to tell the kids you coach and explain why you did?" The man replied that he could.
The ninth juror selected is a white woman in her 50s who lives outside Minneapolis and works as an executive assistant in a clinical health care setting.
She said she has viewed a bystander's widely circulated video, but wrote in her questionnaire filled out months ago, "I couldn't watch it in full because it was too disturbing to me."
That said, she pledged Monday that "I'm not in a position to change the law. I'm in a position to uphold the law. ... He's innocent until we can prove otherwise."
The morning's final juror was swiftly dismissed by the judge after hearing him say the television in his workplace break room is on constantly, exposing him to updates on the case.
With five more jurors yet to be chosen before the livestreamed trial starts in earnest on March 29, the panel consists of four people of color and five people who are white. More specifically: one multiracial woman in her 20s, two Black men in their 30s, one Hispanic man in his 20s, two white women in their 50s, a white man in his 20s and two white men in their 30s.
The impact of the viral video of Floyd's death was felt Monday during jury questioning just as was during last week's selection process.
A 75-year-old man was dismissed by the judge after telling the court, "I didn't even see the whole video. I saw as much as I could take of the video, and I was appalled by what I saw, and that feeling continues to be with me."
The man said he was particularly bothered that the initial accusation against Floyd — that he tried to pass counterfeit currency at a store — prompted a police response that "seemed to me to be inappropriate. ... If anything, Mr. Floyd needed some medical attention. … To exert that kind of force for that long just seemed to be out of line to me."
He concluded that "I think that I could be tainted" by what he's learned abut the case and then apologized to Chauvin and the court for being unable to resolve his dilemma.
He was preceded by a woman who said she "gasped" when she heard of the $27 million settlement and could not be impartial. She was promptly dismissed.
The afternoon began with another swift in and out for a potential juror. The man said he is an educator who works with students of color and said that based on what he knows about the case, "I'd be a horrible candidate as a juror. I couldn't go back and look at my students and my colleagues. ... I am almost sick to my stomach right now."
The defense used one of its peremptory strikes to dismiss a college student who gave an inaccurate account in his questionnaire of how Floyd was killed and where the encounter with police occurred.
When the defense asked the about his opinions about the justice system and race, he often referred to his fellow students and their political leanings, such as when he said he somewhat agrees that Black people are treated unjustly by law enforcement and the courts.
"Most of it is formed by my surroundings [on a campus]. My demographic has tended to be very liberal. ... It is not a belief that I have fostered myself."
Whether during debate over legal issues or during jury selection, the livestream video of Chauvin has consistently shown him as calm, attentive and taking notes.
Judge Cahill dismissed the day's final jury candidate after hearing from him that concerns about safety and what reaction there might be to one verdict or the other.
"If the outcome would go a certain way, and the general public did not like that, that would cause a definite concern for my family," he said.
On Friday, attorneys for the Floyd family hailed the settlement as the largest in a civil rights wrongful death lawsuit in U.S. history, saying the payout sent a powerful statement about the value of Black lives in America.
Before jury selection began Monday, attorneys debated motions that address the scope of testimony by medical expert witnesses, with no rulings prompting any significant changes for what can be aired come the trial in earnest. What did not come up during motions was the appropriateness of the settlement being injected into the trial proceedings.
Half of the jury was selected by the end of Friday after rounds of questioning that focused on the case's publicity and opinions on racial bias and police reform.
Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter after pinning his knee onto Floyd's neck on a south Minneapolis street corner for more than nine minutes on May 25 until Floyd lost consciousness and died.
Cahill allotted three weeks to pick 14 jurors, two of them alternates, given the amount of publicity the case has received, but many prospective jurors interviewed over the past week said they saw news of the case in passing and could set aside their knowledge and opinions if chosen.
The defense has as of Monday afternoon used nine of 15 strikes, which attorneys can employ to dismiss prospective jurors without explanation. Prosecutors have used five of the nine peremptory strikes.
Three other officers assisting in Floyd's arrest — J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao — are scheduled to be tried in August on charges of aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter.
Star Tribune staff writers Liz Navratil, Chao Xiong and Rochelle Olson contributed to this report.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482