Three jurors were seated Tuesday in the murder trial of Derek Chauvin, and more will be questioned Wednesday despite the possibility that the Court of Appeals could halt the proceeding at any moment.
A woman of color and two white men were picked for the jury while six others were questioned and dismissed. Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter in the May 25 killing of George Floyd, who died after Chauvin knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes while two other officers pinned Floyd down and a fourth kept watch.
Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill, Special Attorney for the State Steven Schleicher and Chauvin's attorney, Eric Nelson, asked prospective jurors several questions, including: Could they set aside prior knowledge of the case gleaned from news accounts and be impartial? Do they believe Minneapolis police are more likely to use force against Black civilians? How do they feel about the Black Lives Matter movement?
Floyd's first cousin, Shareeduh Tate, attended jury selection Tuesday, the second day of Chauvin's trial but the first day jurors were questioned.
"I appreciate that there's a lot of time and effort being taken to be sure the right jurors [are] being seated," she said after the court day ended. "It's a long process but I think it's worth getting it right the first time."
Tate traveled from Houston, Texas, Floyd's hometown, to watch the proceeding. Floyd and Chauvin are each limited to one family member in the courtroom due to COVID-19 social distancing protocols.
"I wanted to be a part of the jury selection process, because I feel that's very important," Tate said. "Those people who are seated are going to be responsible for processing the information that's provided during the testimony. We've committed to be here and active and present and seeking justice at every turn, and the jury selection is no different."
Cahill plans to continue with jury selection until 14 jurors have been seated, two of them alternates, unless the Court of Appeals orders him to stop. Jury selection is scheduled to last three weeks, with opening statements and testimony beginning March 29 and lasting up to a month.
Prosecutors argued Monday that the entire trial should be suspended since Nelson has asked the Minnesota Supreme Court to intervene. The Court of Appeals issued a decision last Friday saying Cahill was wrong to reject a February request by prosecutors to reinstate third-degree murder to Chauvin's case. The court ordered him to reconsider the request, but Nelson is asking the state Supreme Court to review the Court of Appeals decision, throwing the trial schedule in doubt.
Attorney General Keith Ellison's office called the Court of Appeals on Monday and filed a motion asking it to postpone the trial, but no guidance was given by the end of Tuesday.
Adding the third-degree murder charge to the case, considered by some as a middle ground of culpability, would give jurors another option to convict Chauvin.
After a brief introduction and a few questions from Cahill on Tuesday, Nelson questioned prospective jurors followed by Schleicher, who is working for Ellison's office.
Nelson hit established themes in much of his questioning, among them: How to resolve conflict between two people, how to decipher the truth in competing versions of events, whether people of color are treated unfairly in the U.S. justice system and one's ability to change an opinion based on facts.
He also probed would-be jurors about the widely viewed Facebook video that showed Chauvin forcibly detaining Floyd until he was rendered unconscious, and how that might weigh on their ability to be impartial when hearing all the evidence.
Of the nine people questioned, six said they had a negative impression of Chauvin to some degree because of the video. One hadn't seen it. Two weren't questioned about the video because one was dismissed early after expressing a strong distrust of police and the other for work obligations.
The first juror seated, a white man, revealed he is a chemist who lives in Minneapolis and said because of his profession, "I consider myself a pretty logical person. … I rely on facts and logic and what's in front of me. Opinion and facts are important distinctions for me."
The juror, who said he visited the intersection of 38th and Chicago where Floyd was killed because he was interested in moving to the area with his fiancée, said he supports the Black Lives Matter message but not the organization, and also added, "I think all lives matter equally." He said the Blue Lives Matter message among police advocates is an unnecessary counter viewpoint. He said he has not viewed the video of Floyd's death.
The second seated juror, a woman and person of color originally from northern Minnesota, told Nelson she was "super excited" to receive her jury summons.
"It's a very important case, not just for Hennepin County … but nationwide," she said. "No matter the decision, people are still going to talk about it."
Like many before her, she said viewing video of Floyd's arrest left her with a "somewhat negative impression of Mr. Chauvin. … No one wants to see someone die."
The woman said she sees racial disparity in the justice system, that she somewhat agrees that Minneapolis police are more likely to use force against Black civilians and that her friends have had bad experiences with police.
She assured Nelson and Schleicher that she could be open-minded at trial. The woman, the niece of a Brainerd-area law enforcement officer, was then seated.
The third juror seated was a white man who works as an auditor. He described himself as honest and straightforward, and he said he hadn't reached a conclusion about guilt in the case despite watching clips of the Facebook video two or three times and developing a "somewhat negative" view of Chauvin.
Schleicher pressed him on answers in his juror questionnaire in which he wrote that Floyd had "hard drugs" in his system when he died and a "checkered past." Nelson has argued that Floyd likely died of a drug overdose; official autopsy results found fentanyl and methamphetamine in his system.
"It's interesting that you used the term 'hard drugs,' " Schleicher said. "What would you describe as 'hard drugs'?"Anything beyond marijuana, the man said, adding that drugs shouldn't have "much impact" on the case. "What happened in the past shouldn't be on trial here," he said.
He said he could set aside his prior opinions and would not be influenced by his friendship with a Minneapolis police K-9 unit officer.Earlier in the day Nelson used two peremptory strikes to dismiss a married mother of three from Mexico and a Hispanic man who had training in jujitsu and Muay Thai kickboxing. Cahill dismissed the woman, noting after she left the room that she was not equipped to serve as a juror because she struggled with some terminology. The woman had also expressed concerns about her English skills, which Cahill said "wasn't so much" the issue.
Nelson struck a Hispanic man who recently moved from Southern California. Schleicher challenged the strike, noting that he was the second person of color to be dismissed by Chauvin's side. Attorneys must give a race-neutral justification for striking jurors. Nelson argued that the man's practice of martial arts was concerning."It does look a little rough, in my opinion," the man said of Chauvin's knee on Floyd. "I believed it could have been handled differently. There could have been a different outcome, in my opinion."
Cahill backed the dismissal, noting that the prospective juror "made it clear" he would adhere to his own opinion unless someone convinced him otherwise. Such a stance ignores a fundamental tenet of the criminal justice system — the presumption of innocence, Cahill said.
Former officers J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao are set to go on trial together Aug. 23 on charges of aiding and abetting and murder and manslaughter in Floyd's death.
Staff writers Paul Walsh and Rochelle Olson contributed to this report.