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What to expect at the Derek Chauvin murder trial

A guide to the jurors, charges, and defense strategy in the trial of the former officer charged with killing George Floyd.

Protestors were given chalk to express themselves during the first day of the Derek Chauvin trial in downtown Minneapolis on March 8, 2021.
Star Tribune via Getty Images

The quest to seat the jury in the high-profile murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin has reached its end.

In the last two weeks of the televised jury selection process, viewers got a sense of how the judge, defense attorney, prosecutors, and jury would perform when the trial starts Monday.

Selecting 15 unbiased jurors was a challenge in itself — the killing of George Floyd is world-renowned. The 46-year-old Black man died in Minneapolis last May after being handcuffed and pinned to the ground for nearly nine minutes by Chauvin. Video of the incident — with Floyd pleading, “I can’t breathe” and bystanders calling on Chauvin to give him some air — spread around the globe and sparked thousands of protests calling for police accountability and racial justice. It seemed an impossible task to find jurors who didn’t come with strong preconceived notions regarding a case that has been highly publicized for almost a year.

Chauvin — who, along with the three other officers involved, was immediately fired following the incident — has been charged with second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. Eric Nelson, the lead defense attorney, will argue that Floyd did not die because of Chauvin’s knee on his neck. He also told a potential juror during the jury selection process that the trial is “not about race.” However, his line of questioning for prospective jurors suggested otherwise, asking them their views on racism, policing in communities of color, and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Meanwhile, the prosecution will have to prove that Chauvin’s actions during the arrest ultimately caused Floyd’s death. And because prosecutors believe it is a race-sensitive case, they struck out prospective white jurors who expressed police-friendly views or who had negative thoughts about the Black Lives Matter protests.

“it’s obviously about race,” said D.A. Bullock, an organizer with Reclaim the Block, a Minneapolis grassroots group calling to divert funds from police departments to community resources. “Given the history of white police officers not being charged in the killing of many unarmed Black men, it’s clear that the justice system is not blind to race. It comes with inherent biases that work against us Black people.”

About a week into the jury selection, the city of Minneapolis agreed to settle a historic $27 million with the Floyd family over a wrongful death lawsuit. Because of this, Nelson asked to delay the trial and for a change of venue, arguing that the timing would prejudice the jury. Several potential jurors were dismissed after bringing up that their views were swayed by the settlement. Hennepin County District Court Judge Peter Cahill rejected Nelson’s motions, though, saying Chauvin wouldn’t get a fairer trial anywhere else.

Now that the jury and venue are settled, opening statements for the trial are slated to begin Monday morning. Chauvin’s trial, which is expected to last at least four weeks, is the first in Minnesota to be streamed and broadcast live in its entirety — a decision approved by Cahill since the pandemic has upended the public’s ability to watch the proceedings. In the courtroom, people are masked, jurors are socially distanced, reporters are limited, and attorneys along with Chauvin are divided by plexiglass.

Here’s what else to expect.

What the defense has planned

During the jury selection process, Nelson tried to humanize Chauvin beyond the image of the white police officer who knelt on a Black man’s neck as he struggled to breathe and begged for his mother.

When the first batch of potential jurors was being questioned, Chauvin — with half his face obscured by a black mask — sat taking notes and rarely making eye contact. At one point, a juror said she could not forget the “hateful look” on Chauvin’s face in the videos. The comment altered the way Nelson later introduced his client to potential jurors, with Chauvin removing his mask to show his full face and nodding at the group.

To avoid convicting Chauvin of the second-degree unintentional murder charge, the defense must prove he did not cause Floyd’s death while also committing a felony — in this case, assault. The defense will argue that Chauvin did not cause Floyd’s death, that it was a combination of excessive drug use and preexisting conditions that killed him. They will call on the county medical examiner who said Floyd’s toxicology report showed high traces of drugs during the incident — but the examiner also noted that it’s hard to say whether Floyd would have died of other causes, like Chauvin’s knee on his neck. If convicted, under Minnesota law, the charge is punishable by up to 40 years in prison.

To avoid conviction on the second-degree manslaughter charge, the defense needs to prove that Chauvin didn’t cause Floyd’s death due to negligence that created an unreasonable risk — meaning, he didn’t know that pinning him down by his neck for nearly nine minutes would lead to severe injury or death. In Minnesota, this charge carries a maximum sentence of up to 10 years.

The third-degree murder charge, under Minnesota law, means the perpetrator acted in a way that was reckless at the risk of causing death and carries a sentence of no more than 25 years. Prosecutors argued to add the third-degree murder charge because not only is it easier to prove than second-degree unintentional felony murder, but it also gives jurors more options about how to convict. If convicted of any of these charges, Chauvin’s status as a first-time offender will also play into how long his prison sentence will be.

Ultimately, the defense’s central strategy is proving that something else ended Floyd’s life — and that it was not Chauvin’s knee. Nelson pushed for a pre-trial motion to include evidence of Floyd’s drug-related arrest by Minneapolis police in 2019. After reviewing Nelson’s arguments, in which the attorney called Floyd’s “emotional responses” during both arrests a “common modus operandi,” Judge Cahill has allowed the defense to show only a portion of the 2019 arrest video as evidence during the trial, adding that Floyd’s interactions with the police in 2019 mirrored the 2020 arrest that led to his death. Cahill also agreed that there were signs that Floyd may have taken drugs in both incidents.

The defense has also tried to argue that Chauvin was terminated due to prejudice, not for cause, and that Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo only fired him out of public pressure. However, prosecutors successfully motioned to exclude any evidence or testimony that speaks to the police department’s decision to fire Chauvin and the other three officers involved since it’s unrelated to how and why Floyd died.

Nelson’s arguments so far give observers a glimpse of how he expects to approach the trial — that the entire investigation leading to Floyd’s death was fundamentally biased against his client, including the ongoing federal civil rights investigation and Chauvin’s immediate firing. Arradondo, the city’s first Black police chief, said he fired the officers after reviewing all the evidence including body-camera videos.

During the month-long trial, several witnesses are expected to testify, including Arradondo, the county medical examiner, and the bystander who videotaped Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck.

The prosecution also plans to introduce “spark of life” witnesses, which under Minnesota law allows family and friends to be called to the stand to deliver testimony that would humanize the victim. Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd, and former girlfriend Courteney Ross are among those expected to speak.

However, the spark-of-life testimonies won’t be considered “evidence” and will be tightly managed by Cahill. The judge said he would draw a line if witnesses talk about Floyd’s character rather than how much they loved him since it would “open the door” for the defense to introduce Floyd’s criminal history as evidence, which so far has been ruled inadmissible. Cahill, nonetheless, added he may allow witnesses to talk about Floyd’s struggles with opioid addiction.

“This is not a hard case,” Ben Crump, the attorney who helped the Floyd family secure the $27 million settlement, said in a news release after the jury selections were completed. “George Floyd had more witnesses to his death than any other person ever — white or Black. We all saw the same thing — the indisputable and unjustified torture and murder by a police officer of a Black man who was handcuffed, restrained, and posed no harm.”

What we know about the jury

The initial jury pool had 326 people, but only about 60 were questioned. Cahill decided 15 needed to be selected, including two alternates and another who will be dropped if the first 14 jurors show up for duty (only 12 will be on the actual jury).

Even though the jury selection process was broadcasted live, the faces of the prospective jurors were not shown to the public for their safety and privacy, and they will not be seen for the duration of the trial. Among the 15 selected jurors, we do know six are people of color — one Black woman, three Black men, and two mixed-race women — while nine are white, six of whom are women. Despite being a white majority, the jury is actually more diverse than the county and the city: According to 2019 data from the US Census Bureau, Hennepin County is about 74 percent white and 14 percent Black while Minneapolis is about 64 percent white and 19 percent Black.

The jurors also come from an array of backgrounds, ranging from an accountant to a chemist to a nurse who has been caring for patients throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Some are extremely familiar with the case while others haven’t been actively following monthslong developments. According to USA Today, seven are in their 20s or 30s, three in their 40s, four in their 50s, and one in her 60s.

Prior to the selection, each potential juror was asked to fill out a 14-page written questionnaire. During the selection process, the jurors were questioned and vetted by Judge Cahill, prosecution, and defense lawyers. The general line of questioning included if their views have changed since filling out the questionnaire, whether they could set aside their personal opinions on the case and social movements to remain impartial, and also about personal safety concerns. Those who expressed major anxiety and fears of being on the jury were ultimately dismissed.

The jurors were also asked about their thoughts or whether they’ve seen the video of Chauvin pinning his knee on Floyd’s neck as well as their views on the Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter movements. One of the selected jurors, who said he plans to move out of Minnesota in late May, noted he has a neutral opinion of Floyd and also generally favors the Black Lives Matter movement but also believes it was “a contributing factor” in the unrest that erupted following Floyd’s death last summer.

Another juror, a white man who works in sales, called the Blue Lives Matter movement “not offensive but shortsighted.” The man, who is supposed to get married in May but said he is willing to postpone the wedding if the trial continues, noted he generally supports law enforcement.

Some of the jurors’ responses also indicated how they would approach the final verdict of the trial. One juror said she wanted to know more about police training and whether placing a knee on someone’s neck was allowed while another said he wanted to hear Chauvin offer his side of the story.

However, one potential juror last week was dismissed by Chauvin’s defense attorney after sharing his thoughts and personal experience with the Minneapolis Police Department and the criminal justice system as a whole.

“As a Black man, you see a lot of Black people get killed and no one’s held accountable for it, and you wonder why or what was the decision, and so with this, maybe I’ll be in the room to know why,” the potential juror told the court.

Although the Army veteran said he could put his personal opinions aside to hear the case solely based on the evidence presented in court, he was still dismissed by the defense arguing that he was biased against the Minneapolis Police Department.

“That was his actual lived experiences with the Minneapolis police, but he was disqualified because it was assumed he couldn’t look past that in order to look at the facts of the case,” Bullock told Vox. “It’s an insult to Black Minneapolis residents because we have to forgo our bias and lived experiences all the time to fit in the system. It just shines a light on some of the inherent unfairness about the system.”

Cahill said he plans to reveal the names of the jurors when it is “safe” to do so. In the meantime, government buildings in downtown Minneapolis remain heavily barricaded by fencing and concrete barriers while members of the Minnesota National Guard remain stationed outside the courthouse. The heavy police presence, Bullock said, has left the community on edge.

Still, activist groups like Reclaim the Block and Black Visions Collective will keep a close eye on the trial while also protesting outside the courthouse and rallying at what’s now George Floyd Square. What they ultimately hope comes out of Floyd’s death is what they’ve always wanted: replacing Minneapolis police with a new public safety department, which means first changing the city charter and knocking door to door to collect signatures to do so.

“Regardless of the outcome of the verdict, we know that true justice would have to reflect in a fundamental change in the way we address public safety. If we’re not doing that, true justice is not served,” Bullock said. “We want justice for George Floyd and his family, of course, but we know that true justice means changing our public safety system.”

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