Five jurors are now seated in the trial of Derek Chauvin for the death late last spring of George Floyd, while a Minnesota Supreme Court ruling could allow prosecutors to revive a charge of third-degree murder.
Jury selection was well into its second day when the state's high court said without elaboration that it would not hear Chauvin's argument to review an appeals court ruling that said a third-degree murder charge against Chauvin was improperly dismissed by District Judge Peter Cahill.
The judge announced the development in court Wednesday afternoon and said he would address the matter Thursday morning, when proceedings move toward seating 12 jurors and two alternates.
"The Supreme Court was right to decline Mr. Chauvin's petition for review," Attorney General Keith Ellison said in a statement. "The Court of Appeals ruled correctly; therefore, there was no need for the Supreme Court to intervene. We believe the charge of third-degree murder is fair and appropriate."
Prosecutors had argued Monday that the entire trial should be suspended because Chauvin's attorney Eric Nelson has asked the Supreme Court to intervene. Ellison's office called the Court of Appeals on Monday and filed a motion asking it to postpone the trial until there was a resolution, but no guidance was given and selection began Tuesday morning.
The two newest members of the jury bring the number of white men on the panel to three, along with a woman of color and a Black man for a trial that promises to proceed with in a racial subcontext, given the white police officer's detention of a Black suspect who died later that evening.
While more jury candidates are being brought in to the courtroom one by one for questioning, the Court of Appeals could intervene at any moment and halt a murder trial that is being livestreamed and televised around the world from downtown Minneapolis.
Wednesday's first selected juror said he was not so worried about the obligation during a pandemic or troubled by all the security in place around the Hennepin County Government Center, but how a trial poised to eat up most of April might impact the timing of his wedding, set for May 1 in Florida.
"If I am part of this jury, then I will not be getting married on that date," he said before drawing chuckles with "that is me answering, not my fiancée."
Sure enough, the man was added to the jury, with Cahill offering to him, with a presumed masked smile, "Go ahead and throw me under the bus with your fiancée."
The native of central Minnesota, who is white and works in sales data, is a father who enjoys sports and music, said he saw the video of Floyd's death and reacted negatively. He answered on his questionnaire that he understood Floyd was "under the influence and somewhat unruly."
When pressed by Chauvin's attorney Nelson on why he believed that, the juror said: "I'm assuming when someone is in handcuffs they're in handcuffs for a reason."
He also said he believes "a police officer is more trained to assess the situation … and share it in a court format" vs. a civilian who might be more "emotion-based."
However, he marked down the justice system for making "arrests for a small offense, like marijuana, are highly skewed toward Black Americans. ... I wish our country and world would get better at that. I do have belief that people are treated differently because of the color of their skin."
"When you look at the phrase Black Lives Matter, yes they do matter and I don't see why anyone would be against that movement," he said, adding that he finds the co-opted phrase "Blue Lives Matter" in support of police shortsighted, although he does support law enforcement.
The fifth juror cleared to serve is a Black man who immigrated to the United States 14 years ago for school in Nebraska and who moved to Minnesota in 2012.
He said during questioning that he feels it's his civic duty to be on the jury and promised that "I will follow the law" despite forming a negative view of Chauvin based on seeing part of the viral video of Floyd's arrest.
While relating to Floyd's death and saying to the defense attorney that "it could be anybody, it could have been you," the multilingual IT manager also said, "I believe that I will be impartial."
During each of the three days so far, Chauvin has paid close attention during the lines of questioning, taking notes and looking on intently.
After extensive questioning, prosecutors chose to strike an attorney sitting on the panel. The white woman in her 30s said she works exclusively in civil litigation and her only professional exposure to criminal side of things was in her law school studies.
She said she has seen small portions of the heavily mentioned arrest video and was clear in declaring that she has a "neutral" view of both Chauvin and Floyd.
The woman added that her legal background would be an asset. "I think I would be a very good juror," she said. "I have a very good memory."
The day's final prospect was a church leader whose views in his questionnaire responses and under questioning by Nelson revealed him to be a supporter police department defunding and a financial supporter of social causes that back justice reform on behalf of minorities.
Nelson pushed hard in light of the man's firm beliefs about whether he could be fair and impartial to his client, a fired police officer accused of murder.
"I believe I could," he told Judge Cahill, who interceded after an aside conversation with the man. With that, the defense chose to strike the candidate.
Also dismissed from the pool was a white woman who has lived in the Minneapolis area for 40 years, said she has seen portions of the prominent arrest video a few times soon after Floyd's death and it left her wanting to know more.
"There's undoubtedly more information that I don't have," said the marketing professional who grew up in western Minnesota. "So I am not in a position to judge. ... There has to be a more of what's going on here. Usually there are a series of events that happened. … I would need to know more to have a firm opinion."
Questioned on her opinion of the Black Lives Matter movement, she said: "Black lives matter, blue lives matter, all lives matter is the beginning and the end of it."
The prosecution struck the woman from consideration ahead of questioning of the day's third jury candidate.
The day's third prospective juror, who is of Asian descent and a father of three girls, said he wanted to be on the jury not only to help deliver justice but to possibly see how public policy might prevent the same result in a similar incident.
When Nelson pressed him on that motivation, the man said, "The case is the case, as I see it now. Policy is not decided here. Policy is decided somewhere else … My duty is only about this case."
That ended Nelson's questioning of man, and the defense attorney struck him from a possible seat on the jury.
Nelson rejected the next candidate as well, hearing that the man had reservations about Chauvin's right to not testify at trial.
The real estate professional, who is white, has a daughter who has marched in protests.
"There's always something about that over my lifetime that hasn't felt quite right. … At different times in my life, it has struck me enough that I brought it up in that [jury] questionnaire."
Despite saying he could put his unease about a defendant's constitutional right against self-incrimination, Nelson decided this would-be juror would not sit in judgment of his client.
The morning began with a motion by Nelson to bar anticipated key witness Donald Williams from testifying as an expert about his martial arts expertise. Williams was among vocal bystanders captured on a Facebook video pleading with Chauvin to remove his knee from Floyd's neck.
Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter in the May 25 killing of Floyd, who died after the white officer knelt on his neck for more than 9 minutes while two other officers pinned the Black man down and a fourth kept watch at the intersection of E. 38th Street and S. Chicago Avenue.
Nelson said that while he understands that Williams was clearly at the scene and can testify to what he witnessed, he should not be able to assess whether the restraint Chauvin placed on Floyd was legitimate.
Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank said that Williams, who began wrestling at age 13, has trained in mixed martial arts for more than 10 years, has at least 18 professional fights to his credit and has trained alongside police officers in use of force techniques.
"Anyone who has seen the [bystander] video knows what we were talking about," Frank said. "He was so vocal because he knew the seriousness of this. He knew that Mr. Chauvin was killing this man. He knew this was very dangerous."
District Judge Peter Cahill ruled that Williams is entitled to testify about his martial arts training, as well as the hold he observed, and his belief that it went on too long. He won't be allowed to speak as a medical expert and address what caused Floyd's death, the judge said.
Nelson also sought to exclude any reference to a "blue wall of silence" or other instance of police conspiring to not cooperate. Frank said that although "by and large the Minneapolis Police Department and its personnel have been professional and cooperative," they should not be prohibited from raising the issue of bias.
Cahill said the term an instance of "loaded rhetorical devices" similar to "the thin blue line" and said he's not likely to allow the term, but will visit the issue at trial when necessary.
On Tuesday, Special Attorney for the State Steven Schleicher and Nelson asked prospective jurors several questions about their ability to be impartial, their knowledge of the case and feelings about a widely watched witness video showing Floyd's arrest. They also were quizzed about their impressions about how Minneapolis police treat Black suspects and about the Black Lives Matter social justice movement.
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.
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 Rochelle Olson and Chao Xiong contributed to this report.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482