Prospective juror No. 5’s father was a fire chief. He grew up around police officers, and his favorable impression of law enforcement has held up well into adulthood.
In a typical Ramsey County criminal trial — one where a police officer’s credibility is stacked against that of someone charged with a crime — he’d be a prosecutor’s dream juror, and one the defense would likely move quickly to send home.
But the State of Minnesota vs. Jeronimo Yanez is no ordinary trial. Yanez is the St. Anthony police officer charged with manslaughter in the shooting death of Philando Castile during a July 2016 traffic stop.
“The roles are totally reversed,” said Diane Wiley, a founder of NJP Consulting, which consults with attorneys on jury selection. “Both sides are trying to get rid of the jurors they would normally want to keep.”
Jury selection in some criminal cases can take about a day; its taken a week in the Yanez trial and is expected to wrap up Monday.
Attorneys for both sides grilled a pool of 50 prospective jurors about everything from where they work to their views on gun ownership, their criminal records and even what’s on their Facebook page.
The defense is likely looking for jurors who respect law enforcement, said Joe Friedberg, a longtime Minnesota defense attorney.
“They will give a police officer the real presumption of innocence they’d be entitled to in this case,” he said.
They’re also looking for people who have never had any run-ins with police and have not been swayed by media coverage. And, he said they will more than likely try to strike black jurors.
Although several high-profile cases of police-involved shootings across the country involved white officers and black men like Castile, Yanez is Mexican-American. Friedberg said it’s hard to tell whether that will make a difference.
Of the half-dozen black jurors in the initial pool, one was excused Wednesday after saying in a questionnaire that Yanez “was not a good person and I didn’t care for his actions.” Earlier that morning, a young black man who said he’d never had any experience with police and knew little about the Yanez case was allowed to continue into the jury pool.
Yanez, 29, is charged with second-degree manslaughter for fatally shooting Castile, 32, and two counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm for endangering Castile’s passengers — girlfriend Diamond Reynolds and her daughter, then 4. Reynolds used her cellphone to live-stream the aftermath on Facebook. But several have said they had no knowledge of the case.
On Friday, the pool was narrowed to 23 prospective jurors — 16 men and seven women. Two are people of color. On Monday, they’ll narrow the number to 15 to serve on the jury, three of them alternates.
Prosecutors are likely looking for jurors who won’t automatically side with police, said attorney Carson Heefner.
Heefner is one of the attorneys representing Mohamed Osman in a lawsuit against ex-Minneapolis police officer Christopher Reiter, who is accused of kicking Osman in the face.
If that case ever goes to trial, Heefner said he’ll be looking to cut jurors who believe officers are more credible than the average person.
When Minneapolis police officer Michael Griffin went on trial in April 2016 on civil rights violation charges related to separate brawls with civilians, his attorney, Robert Richman, said because it was a federal case both sides had only an hour to question about 30 potential jurors.
And though Richman noted numerous other differences between Griffin’s case and Yanez’s, he said he looked for jurors who “would not come in with the stereotypical view that police officers were violent.”
Griffin was acquitted of the most serious charges in his case.
On Wednesday, the prosecution in the Yanez trial tried to cut a potential juror whom they learned had posted articles supportive of the police on her Facebook page — posts the woman said she didn’t recall. Their effort was denied.
When it came time for the prosecution to question another potential juror, assistant Ramsey County attorney Clayton Robinson confronted him with a cocaine possession charge that he hadn’t revealed in his questionnaire.
“It was 20 years ago,” the man replied. “I forgot about it.”
But the man said he owned several guns, had a permit, knew almost nothing about the case, and said there’s “no more difficult job” than being a police officer. That seemed good for the defense. After about an hour of questioning, both sides accepted him into the jury pool.
‘Not a science’
Another prospective juror on Thursday shared frustrations he had with a previous call for jury duty in which he was dismissed with no explanation.
The man, a biology professor, told Ramsey County District Judge William H. Leary III that as a scientist, he would have appreciated an explanation as to why he was not seated on the jury.
“Jury selection is not a science,” Leary told the man. “It’s far from it. It’s probably not an art. It’s the best guess possible.”
Juror No. 5, the man who grew up around law enforcement, told the court that he actually lived near where Castile was killed.
He said as the neighborhood chatter erupted in the days following, he kept his opinions neutral. A few days ago his neighbor said she felt Yanez was wrong.
“I told her, ‘Everybody that doesn’t know what’s going on should chill out a little bit.’ ”
Both sides allowed him to continue into the jury pool.