Brandon Mitchell was ready to call it quits two weeks into jury duty in the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, overwhelmed by the brutality of the evidence and plunged into isolation as he was prohibited by the court from revealing his role to friends or family.
He tried to relax in his downtown Minneapolis apartment one weekend and found himself unable to turn on the TV for fear of seeing news about the highly publicized case, which was also prohibited by the court. He couldn't say a word to anyone in his closely-knit family about the stress he shouldered hearing several witnesses testify about watching George Floyd die under Chauvin's knee and re-watching bystander and police body camera videos of the incident.
"The hardest moment [of the trial] was coming home…," he said in an interview Wednesday. "I was sitting at home and trying to find a way to decompress and not being able to decompress. I had almost an emotional breakdown at that point because I had nothing. I couldn't figure it out. I couldn't figure out how to decompress.
"It was like, 'I don't know if I can do this … I don't know if I can continue going in here without having more breakdowns like this.' "
Mitchell, 31, who is Black, was one of 12 jurors who convicted Chauvin last Tuesday of all the counts against him — second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. He first shared his story on gospel singer Erica Campbell's podcast, and is the first juror to speak about his experience. Alternate juror Lisa Christensen shared her experience last week.
Mitchell described the jury's 9-hour, 45-minute deliberations as "smooth" with a strong focus on the evidence and terminology of the law, and no discussions about race or the broader issue of police killing civilians. Last year's protests following Floyd's May 25 murder that included extensive arson and vandalism, and the prospect of personal reprisals did not come up in deliberations or impact their verdicts, Mitchell said.
"That was so far removed from my mind in particular, and, I'm sure others, too, because the stress of the case alone and the stress of being in the courtroom on a day-to-day basis watching the things we had to watch every day, you don't even care to think about any of that," he said of the protests and potential backlash. " … You have to watch somebody in agony and pain from the videos, watching somebody die in the videos … you see people cry every day … you're not really thinking about what happened last summer or what could happen.
"At that point, you just want to do what's right, and that's just what it comes down to."
But the road to their verdicts wasn't easy. That weekend Mitchell holed up at home lost in thought. He ordered some food and settled in for the night. He started a movie on Netflix, "Two Distant Strangers," without realizing the plot was about a Black man who continually relives the same day in which he is repeatedly killed in a new manner by a police officer.
About eight minutes into the movie he burst into tears "bawling." After crying for an hour in solitude, Mitchell, who hadn't closely followed news of Floyd's killing and who had only seen several seconds of the much longer bystander video a few times before trial, steeled himself to enter the courtroom again.
" 'I have to stay on this jury duty, I have to stay a juror,' " Mitchell said he told himself. "But I was literally minutes away from calling my mom and saying, 'Mom, I'm not going into this tomorrow. I'm just not going to do it,' but I was able to pull it together."
Mitchell's roommate, his cousin Trey Marzell Mitchell, surmised by Mitchell's absences that he was a juror. Marzell Mitchell said they never discussed the trial, but the cousins went through the experience together as Marzell Mitchell watched it nearly every day on TV.
"I pretty much watched the whole trial on TV as he was there … just so he know he wasn't alone," said Marzell Mitchell, who is also Black. "If he's enduring it, I will endure it with him as well."
Mitchell was born and raised in north Minneapolis, which has a large Black population. Several cousins still live there, and he has coached basketball at Minneapolis North, or North Community High School, for eight years.
He wouldn't let the case be decided with one less Black male voice.
"I literally told myself … that if I was not a part of this jury, there would be no representation of me as an African American male," he said. "And I felt like that representation was important. I told myself, 'If I'm not going to be there, who's going to represent us?' "
An unusually diverse jury that was half people of color and half white decided Chauvin's fate. In addition to Mitchell, there was a Black man in his 30s who immigrated to the United States, a Black man in his 40s, a Black woman in her 60s and two multiracial women in their 20s and 40s. Mitchell praised the jury's diversity, and said it should be more commonplace.
As the trial progressed Mitchell saw more of himself in Floyd — both were athletes who loved basketball and both had tall, built statures that others immediately responded to. The responsibility of being a Black man on the jury grew "heavier and heavier" as he learned more about Floyd.
"These things, I resonated with," Mitchell said. "It just really hit me."
When one of Floyd's younger brothers, Philonise Floyd, testified about their childhood in Houston, Tex. and how much he and others looked up to Floyd, Mitchell couldn't help but think of his older and younger brothers. He also has two sisters.
Some nights after sitting through a full day of testimony Mitchell raced to Minneapolis North where he coached an all-Black team. The varsity team was making a run for the state tournament, but Mitchell had to keep up a wall between himself and the players.
"It was hard being around them," he said. "I had to create some distance, only because of the emotions of the case. I didn't want to push that negative energy on them. They're young men; they're very malleable."
When deliberations began about 4 p.m. last Monday Mitchell was ready to convict on all counts. That first day, the group immediately took a preliminary vote on the manslaughter charge. One juror was unsure, so they discussed it further and eventually reached a consensus that evening, Mitchell said.
Jurors, who reviewed several videos and the evidence, spent about 3 1/2 hours the next day discussing the third-degree murder count. They parsed out the meaning of "others" in the law, which says the statute applies when someone causes a death while "perpetrating an act eminently dangerous to others." The group debated whether it meant one or multiple people, and decided it could be interpreted either way, leading to a unanimous conviction, according to Mitchell.
The highest count — second-degree murder — was agreed upon with little discussion.
"We got done with that in thirty minutes," Mitchell said of their discussion. "All the conversations were very civil … everybody was able to get their views in."
Jurors felt that the bystander video and testimony from prosecution expert Dr. Martin Tobin were especially effective, and that Chauvin's defense could not show that he died of pre-existing heart issues and a drug overdose, Mitchell said.
A few jurors wanted to hear from Chauvin, who chose not to testify. Mitchell said the defense didn't have "anything to lose" by putting him on the witness stand, but added, "I don't think it would have changed the verdicts."
Chauvin was "really confident" at the start of the trial, but, "You could see the confidence dwindling," Mitchell said.
Jurors were emotionless as the verdicts were read Tuesday afternoon. But Mitchell said half of them broke down into tears upon retiring to a backroom immediately afterward.
"Everybody had just been harboring this weight on their shoulders for weeks and then to finally be done…," he said, adding that he was in a state of shock. "To be a part of it is a weird feeling, because I had to watch a Black man die … then I had to decide how this other man gets to spend pretty much the rest of his life. Those are not good feelings to have … but I'm hoping that I can use it and use my platform that I currently have to spark some change, inspire others to get out and speak."
Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708