Chauvin Trial Day 2: Jury Selection Begins
The first day of jury selection in the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd wrapped today with three of fourteen total jurors seated, in a day marked by extensive questioning of jurors and subtle but significant maneuvering by attorneys from both sides.
The quest for an “impartial” jury seemed profoundly difficult throughout the day. The reality of voir dire—the questioning of potential jurors for selection—is that anyone with a particularly strong opinion one way or the other is ripe for rejection due to bias. As Judge Peter Cahill stated repeatedly, jurors were expected to put everything aside and only consider the evidence and testimony presented when the trial goes into full swing on March 29th. What we saw today was a textbook case of subtle legal wrangling in which the attorneys for both sides—defense attorney Eric Nelson vs. Steve Schleichler, the member of the State’s team of attorneys handling jury selection—worked a process that was one part chess game and several parts sausage-making. As attorney for the defense, Nelson only needs one person to remain unconvinced of Chauvin's guilt by the end of the trial. Schleichler, and the state’s, goal is different: finding twelve jurors whose knowledge of George Floyd’s death, and Chauvin’s involvement, won’t have formed such solid opinions that they could be grounds for a later appeal. It’s hard to imagine that anyone eligible to serve on the jury wouldn’t have formed an opinion, and even harder to imagine what cave such a person would have been living in last spring to miss the video of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck and the protests that swept the Twin Cities and the nation. Perhaps that’s why a noticeable ripple of shock went through the courtroom when Juror 2, the first to be seated, stated that he’d never seen the video.
Potential jurors were all required to fill out an extensively detailed questionnaire in December, which formed the basis of today’s voir dire. One by one, jurors were asked extensively to flesh out answers they had given in the questionnaire, whether they had seen the original video of George Floyd’s murder, their thoughts on Black Lives Matter, and if they were capable of putting aside their current opinions to examine only the evidence presented in court. Throughout questioning, some jurors expressed concern about the significance of the trial, while others seemed highly motivated to be seated. In the meantime, Schleichler and Nelson worked a subtle game to root out jurors with obvious biases against their respective sides.
Early on, Nelson rejected two jurors of Latinx background, one for, among other things, apparently knowing too much about mixed martial arts. This second rejection raised an objection from the prosecution, with Schleichler arguing that this was a clear issue of using race as a criteria for dismissing a juror. Judge Peter Cahill ruled in favor of the defense, stating that the issue was not the juror’s knowledge, but that he had already formed a strong opinion about the case—specifically that Chauvin’s use of force was illegal—that would indicate that he’d already decided Chauvin was guilty.
Later in the day, Schleichler rejected a juror after questioning him extensively on his belief that “police should not be second-guessed” and concern that being identified as a juror would cause “certain people” to retaliate against his family and home. Three other jurors were dismissed by Judge Peter Cahill or for cause, including juror 17, who seemed completely overwhelmed with every part of the trial, from the concrete barricades outside to the idea of having to make a judgement with a group of other people.
By the end of the day, three jurors had been seated and told to come back on March 29th: two white males and one woman of color. All seemed most valued by attorneys for both sides specifically because they were fairly moderate in their statements during questioning and repeatedly stated that they could be open-minded and review the evidence impartially, although their answers to questions raise some significant flags. For example, it’s unclear exactly where juror 2—the first to be seated—stood since he seemed to make contradictory statements, at one point stating that racial bias in the criminal justice system was a statistically proven fact, then later stating that he supported Black Lives Matter “in theory” but that “all lives matter.” Juror 9, a woman of color, spoke enthusiastically about how important she thought it was to serve on this particular jury, and was asked repeatedly about her family relationship with a police officer from Northern Minnesota, a relationship she claimed wouldn’t influence her opinion. Juror 19, the last of the day, mentioned a passing “friend of a friend” relationship with a member of the Minneapolis Police Department.
Throughout it all, Chauvin sat, dressed in an ill-fitting grey suit, plexiglass separating himself and Nelson, occasionally taking notes on a yellow note pad or conferring with his legal team during sidebars. And while George Floyd’s cousin Shareeduh Tate occupied her family’s single allotted seat in the Covid-19 restricted courtroom, Chauvin’s family seat remained empty for the second day in a row.