The addition of three jurors Thursday afternoon brings the jury total to 12 for the murder trial of fired Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, an increase that came a day after two were removed in the wake of new revelations and high-volume publicity about a case being watched around the world.
Last week's announcement of a $27 million lawsuit settlement between the city and the survivors of George Floyd not only required Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill to subject seven jurors to a second round of questioning Wednesday, but the remaining candidates chosen for scrutinizing are sure to be quizzed about whether they too have heard about the record-breaking payout and how their opinion of the defendant may have been affected.
Heading into Thursday's proceedings, nine jurors had been selected to determine whether Chauvin caused the death of Floyd on May 25 during an arrest at a south Minneapolis intersection or whether a medical episode caused his death.
Just as another full day of jury selection had come to an end, echoes of the lawsuit settlement could be heard yet again in the Chauvin trial courtroom, sparking an angry retort from Cahill.
Around midday, defense attorney Eric Nelson said for the record that the city had just argued it had no choice but to make the lawsuit announcement when it did. Nelson pointed out, however, that the agreement "will not be finalized for another month, [so] it raises the question of whether the announcement was necessary regardless of timing."
Cahill duly noted Nelson's comment and left it at that. Or so he thought, until prosecutor Steve Schleicher characterized Nelson's observations as being based on third-hand information and better suited to be filed formally with the court.
A peeved Cahill cut Schleicher short. "Let's just stop right there. As an officer of the court, Mr. Nelson was noting something that was in progress almost. He has the right to do that. You have the right to criticize it as not being sufficiently supported by declarations and affidavits. … You should not be criticizing each other for noting for the record things that are happening on an emergent matter." He also noted that the prosecution has far more resources than Nelson.
The judge then once again made clear that the settlement should end as a topic of discussion, both by city officials and in his courtroom: "Make your submissions, I prefer they be in writing, and we stop talking about it. I've asked Minneapolis to stop talking about it. They keep talking about it. We keep talking about it. Everybody just stop talking about it."
Before emotions flared Thursday, the number of jurors selected got rolling again in the afternoon. The 10th juror added, a nurse who lives in Edina, assured the court she could judge the evidence fairly despite having seen portions of the viral video of Floyd's arrest and after hearing about the settlement.
Attorneys for both sides focused strongly on her 27 years of nursing in light of the trial likely touching on how police dealt with Floyd becoming unresponsive during his arrest and the connection of drug use to his death.
The woman, who is white, said her personal training would affect how she would look at the evidence. "We all use our life experiences to make judgments," which for her duties include resuscitating patients in urgent situations and dispensing opiates while on the job.
The judge interjected and pointed out that she can't be "an expert witness" in the jury room, and she agreed that would be wrong.
Prosecutor Schleicher quizzed the nurse about drug addiction. She said she has seen patients who were hooked on opiates and doesn't believe any particular segment of the population is more susceptible than another. "It can be anybody," she said.
The day's second new juror is a grandmother and retired marketing professional who volunteers helping children in need with their homework.
She said he started watching the video of Floyd's arrest but stopped after four to five minutes because "it just wasn't something that I needed to see, as I shut things off things I see in the news."
The woman, who is Black, said she has not formed opinions about either Chauvin or Floyd and was firm in saying news of the settlement would not affect her commitment to be an objective juror.
As with many jury candidates, the woman was asked about her impression of Black Lives Matter. She responded: "I am Black, and my life matters."
She disclosed that she has a relative who is on the Minneapolis police force, but they have not spoken about this case or any experiences in law enforcement.
The woman didn't consider herself particularly close to the relative, yet added, "I am proud of my relative for standing up and being a police officer."
The third new juror of the day is a suburban woman who works in the insurance industry. Like others, she has viewed the bystander video and was aware of the settlement but said those would not be factors in her maintaining fairness and objectivity as a juror.
The woman wrote in her juror questionnaire months ago that she didn't believe Floyd deserved to die and police didn't need to use excessive force. However, she continued, Floyd was not completely innocent.
She said she has generally positive views of police and opposes any defunding of their departments yet also believes "people of other races get treated unfairly" by law enforcement.
Another line of questioning for her dealt with drug and alcohol addiction, a topic the nurse put on the jury earlier Thursday also addressed. This juror said, "I understand there are people that struggle with addiction. That doesn't make them a bad person. ... If someone uses drugs, I don't think there should be violent ramifications for that."
The day wrapped up with a juror excused after he expressed concern for his family's safety should he be on this jury. The judge also noted a hint that the man might be unduly influenced by the settlement. Court resumes Friday at 8:15 a.m.
Opening statements are scheduled to begin on March 29. Only two more are needed to hear the murder and manslaughter trial that is being watched on livestream around the world.
Jury selection proceeded without incident last week, until last Friday. That's when Minneapolis leaders announced the million settlement with Floyd's family. Because of the publicity surrounding that decision, Cahill brought back for virtual one-on-one questioning the seven jurors who were seated before what he called the "unfortunate broadcast" of the settlement.
Thursday's jury selection began with a woman's quick dismissal by the judge, again in connection with the settlement. She said she's exposed to news coverage routinely in her home and heard about the settlement.
Asked whether that development moved her closer to the prosecution's side and against the defendant, the woman said, "A little bit." That was enough for Cahill to excuse the woman.
She was followed by a mother of five grown children who said she has viewed no video of Floyd's arrest and has seen just a single photo from his encounter with police. She also said she had not heard about the settlement.
The woman said she had a negative view of the sometimes violent protests after Floyd's death, pointing to "the physical damage to the city, and [it] seems like there is more crime than there was before. The reputation of the city seems to have taken a hit. I can't say that I am aware of anything positive has come out of it."
She added that her son was among fellow protesters on the 35W Bridge in downtown Minneapolis, where a large truck rolled through the crowd. "I was very frightened when he called to tell me that," she said, adding that she didn't know he was out protesting, but "I wasn't angry to him for going."
Questioned about law enforcement, the woman said it's fair for officers to be scrutinized about their on-duty actions but also holds a high respect for the profession. She said in writing before appearing Thursday that she felt "neutral" about Chauvin but somewhat negative toward Floyd because of his scrapes with the law.
While the defense indicated receptivity to her being on the jury, the prosecution used one of its discretionary strikes and excused her. The prosecution has five of its 10 strikes remaining. The defense has six of its 18 left.
For the next jury candidate, the court muted the livestream audio, and the subsequent discussion resulted in the judge dismissing the woman. Two news reporters were in the courtroom listening, but Cahill ordered them to not disclose what they heard.
Cahill did explain that this potential juror is "acquainted with one of the witnesses in the case who is a central person in the state's case and would be testifying about fairly sensitive material." Therefore, he said he concluded, this created "too close a connection with a central witness."
The afternoon's first would-be juror, an information technology administrator, made clear his distrust of police, and was summarily dismissed.
Not only did the man say he believes Chauvin caused Floyd's death with "lethal' force, but he said "systematic racism" runs through policing and that law enforcement is overmilitarized.
He also said police do not make him feel safe in his community "mostly in light of everything that's been going on in this case and related events. And I'm always wary of people with guns being in my general vicinity."
The judge excused the prospective juror and noted he would have trouble finding a police officer as a credible witness.
The questioning of jurors has also been impacted since early last week by the viral video that a bystander shot showing Chauvin pinning the 46-year-old Floyd to the pavement by the knee for more than nine minutes until he became unresponsive and died.
Some were excused after saying the video shook them emotionally or strongly challenged their ability to be fair and impartial toward defendant.
Many of the questions posed by defense attorney Nelson to the would-be jurors deal with race relations, policing and the fairness of the criminal justice system. Chauvin is white. Floyd was Black.
Through Thursday, the jury consists of six people of color and six people who are white. More specifically: one multiracial woman in her 20s, one multiracial woman in her 40s, two Black men in their 30s, one Black man in his 40s, one Black woman in her 60s, a white woman in her 40s, three white women in their 50s, a white man in his 20s and a white man in his 30s.
Cahill heard debate Thursday on a defense motion regarding a prosecution expert witness, Dr. Sarah Vinson, who is set to testify about Floyd's behavior while under arrest. The defense contended in its filing that any evaluation of Floyd's emotional state during his arrest "is speculative, based upon multiple levels of inadmissible hearsay, fails to meet scientific standards, offers no assistance to the jury, or so favors one party."
The prosecution wants Vinson to help explain to the jury that Floyd was suffering from claustrophobia and having a panic attack during the police encounter and not faking his reaction.
Special Attorney for the State Jerry Blackwell said Thursday that it's logical for Floyd to respond that way after an officer drew a gun on him and put him at risk for "having his head blown off over fake $20 bill."
Nelson countered that if Vinson can speak to Floyd's state of mind, then the defense should be able to present at trial some details about Floyd's behavior during his May 2019 drug-related arrest that he says unfolded in much the same way.
Cahill said he would take the dispute under advisement and likely make a ruling on Friday, a day that could be the most consequential yet for other reasons. The judge said he intends to announce whether he will grant defense requests to either delay the trial because of the settlement's disruption of jury selection or move the trial to a different Minnesota city, where the heavy cloud of publicity about the case might be less evident to prospective jurors.
Chauvin stands charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter.
Three other fired officers who assisted in Floyd's 2020 arrest — J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao — are scheduled to be tried in a single proceeding in August on charges of aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter.
Star Tribune staff writers Rochelle Olson and Chao Xiong contributed to this report.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482