The influence of extensive publicity again took center stage at the murder trial of fired Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on Wednesday, with two seated jurors dismissed amid an announcement that the city has agreed to pay George Floyd's survivors $27 million.
The total number of jurors temporarily shrank to seven when Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill removed two who said under his questioning they had heard about a federal lawsuit settlement reached last week and admitted it affected their ability to assure Chauvin of his constitutional right to be presumed innocent during the course of the trial.
That total was bumped back up to nine by day's end Wednesday, when a Black suburban father and a woman of mixed race who is organizational consultant for her corporate clients were added to the panel. The case resumes Thursday at 8:30 a.m., with the judge granting additional peremptory strikes to both sides in light of the unexpected settlement being widely announced.
Before questioning the recalled jurors Wednesday, Cahill began the court session by warning journalists against reporting what is on notes and computers in courtroom, along with the security details on the 18th floor. He called it "extremely irresponsible" and said there would be sanctions if these disclosures continued.
One of the morning's dismissed jurors was a Hispanic man in his 20s who said news of the settlement "kind of confirms opinions that I already have. ... I think it will be hard to be impartial."
The second excused juror, a white man in his 30s, said he was taken aback by the size of the settlement. "It sent a message that the city of Minneapolis felt something was wrong," the man said. "That sticker price shocked me. It kind of swayed me, yes."
The remaining seated jurors questioned by Cahill were either not aware of the settlement or said it would not impact their opinions.
A female juror who remains told the judge, "I've been thinking about this question a lot. ... It wasn't surprising that the city made this settlement."
Cahill asked the woman, a white nonprofit healthcare executive in her 50s, how she would respond to a fellow juror bringing up the payout during deliberations, and she replied, "I would say that has nothing to do with what we're discussing at this time. ... It's not part of the case."
Prosecutor Steve Schleicher rose after the unusual juror recall to note that he detected some hesitancy on the woman's part when she affirmed her ability to judge the case without bias.
"We went through extensive questioning with her, I recall," Cahill said, referencing the woman's initial appearance as a jury candidate. "I believe she can be fair and impartial."
By day's end Wednesday, with five more jurors yet to be chosen before the livestreamed trial starts in earnest, the panel consists of five people of color and four 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, two white women in their 50s, a white man in his 20s and a white man in their 30s.
Proceedings regained their normal cadence late Wednesday morning, with jurors coming in one-by-one for questioning. An eighth person joined the jury in the afternoon after promising that the settlement would have no influence on his ability to keep an open mind during the trial.
The man, a married father who is Black, offered a generally positive view of police, including when they investigated his home being burglarized, but he also feels that minorities are too often arrested. "Most of them tend to be Black people," he said.
He said he disagrees with the concept of "defunding" the police as a part of changing their practices, saying, "the police do a lot. ... I would trust the police."
He has a son who is nearing driving age. Schleicher asked him what he would tell his son to do if he were pulled over by police: "You stop and answer the questions," he said.
The newest juror is a white woman in her 40s who consults corporations big and small about how to improve their organizational and personnel practices toward creating greater efficiency.
She said the settlement would have no bearing on her being a fair judge of the evidence.
"Civil suits often don't declare guilt," she said, and are settled "for different reasons."
Should the payout come up in deliberations, she said that "if it's not part of the evidence, then it is not something I would consider."
Jury questioning started Wednesday with a man who is unemployed after a stint as a contractor and noted how being on the jury might stall his job search.
However, he was hopeful about his prospects. He had a neutral view of Floyd and a somewhat negative view of Chauvin because "I knew that a guy died, I knew that [Chauvin] lost his job and was being put on trial."
As defense attorney Eric Nelson moved along his typical script, he drew out of the man an inclination to favor a law enforcement officer over a bystander when it comes to testifying credibly. "If it's a topic related to law or law enforcement, sure," the man responded.
Nelson then consulted briefly off the audible record with the judge, who then excused the man from jury duty.
The midday break came with yet another juror dismissed, this one a man who said he and many others he knows who are also Black have experienced prejudice at the hands of Minneapolis police. Despite that, the man gave firm assurances to the defense's repeated questions about whether he could be a fair arbiter of the evidence.
"Me, as a Black man, you see a lot of Black men get killed and no one is held accountable for it," he said. "And you wonder why. Maybe I will be in the [court] room to know why."
The man, who previously lived near the intersection of E. 38th Street and S. Chicago Avenue, where Chauvin pinned Floyd to the pavement for more than 9 minutes, said "it's sad" how the incident played out.
"It's another Black man being murdered in police hands," he said. "You get to the point where it's anger, [but] you have to sit and evaluate all the information. My opinion doesn't really matter. It's a matter of what the judge and you guys [the attorneys] ask me to do."
Nelson asked the man could envision Chauvin being acquitted. "If the evidence is there, yes sir, I could see that."
Before being forced to use another peremptory strike, Nelson sought to have Cahill dismiss the man because of several remarks regarding his experiences with Minneapolis officers, including the jury candidate's references to Floyd being "murdered" and saying police would "antagonize us in the area" and play "another one bites the dust" while he lived near 38th and Chicago.
Schleicher opposed the motion, saying, "I don't' think the prospective juror reflecting his actual life experience reflected any actual bias. I think he was reflecting his reality as he sees it every day."
Cahill denied the motion to that the bench remove the man. The judge said he believed the man's introspection on learning why Floyd's death explaining to the community the decisions he would make as a juror.
"What I am relying on in listening to this juror was hearing 'This is another Black man murdered,' yet he could be fair and impartial, and what he would get out of it is the ability to tell people why."
The judge noted the impact of the lawsuit settlement on jury questioning and granted the defense three more strikes and the prosecution one more. The leaves the defense with six remaining strikes after using 12. The prosecution now stands at five used and five at its disposal.
The afternoon break came after an emotional woman said her daughter died by gun violence near where Floyd was killed. She was immediately dismissed.
Wednesday afternoon, the impact of publicity about the case sank yet another jury candidate. For this man, it was the viral video he said he viewed numerous times — in total or in part — showing Chauvin's arrest of Floyd.
In the juror questionnaire the man submitted before speaking in court, the man noted that Floyd was intoxicated and using counterfeit currency before his detention, "but these are no actions that should not bring about your death. ... There are many ways this could have been handled differently."
The man, who lives in Minneapolis near the Third Precinct headquarters that was under assault during rioting after Floyd's death He went on to acknowledge that granting Chauvin a presumption of innocence "would be difficult for me, from what I have seen, and erase everything I have seen.".
Connected to the settlement's announcement, Nelson put before Cahill several requests on Tuesday. The judge said he will consider two: delaying the trial so attorneys can have time to reassess their strategies in the context of the settlement; moving the trial to a different Minnesota city, where the influence of publicity about the case might not be as ever-present.
Cahill rejected sequestering the jury any sooner than during deliberations and granting the defense more strikes to use for dismissing would-be jurors.
The judge said Wednesday he would rule Friday on a continuance and the change of venue option.
Also on Cahill's plate for a ruling this week is whether he should allow details from Floyd's May 2019 arrest in Minneapolis. Cahill previously denied letting in testimony about the arrest, but opened the door Tuesday after hearing the defense's arguments. The judge said he would rule Friday on this legal issue as well.
In May 2019 and again on May 25, 2020, the day he died, Floyd swallowed drugs during his police encounters. In the earlier incident, captured on police body camera video, the drugs led to a "hypertensive emergency" and the 46-year-old Floyd's hospitalization.
According to the evidence from the earlier arrest, Nelson said, a paramedic warned Floyd that his blood pressure was extremely high, and if he didn't calm down, he was at risk of a heart attack or stroke. The cause of Floyd's death will be a core issue at trial.
Race relations have come up consistently throughout jury selection. Chauvin is white, and Floyd was Black. Many potential jurors have been questioned about how police and the justice system treat Blacks vs. whites in this country. They've also been asked their opinions about the Black Lives Matter movement and the term Blue Lives Matter, which is a way to express support for law enforcement.
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 August on charges of aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482