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  • Writer's pictureTigger Lunney

Chauvin Trial Day 3: a Day of Big Decisions as Motions and Jury Selection Continues

Jury selection continued today in the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd. Two additional jurors were seated today, for a total of five, but the biggest stories of the day were definitely procedural, as attorneys from both sides continue to argue motions that will dictate the rules of the trial. Two important decisions were made today that potentially have a significant impact on the trial.

Before jury selection began, Judge Peter Cahill heard arguments from defense attorney Eric Nelson and prosecution attorney Matthew Frank about Motion 22. The motion, made by Nelson, intended to limit the scope of witness Donald Williams’s testimony.

Williams is the eyewitness to the murder of George Floyd prominently seen in video footage telling Chauvin and the other Minneapolis Police officers on the scene that Chauvin’s hold (knee on neck) on George Floyd was dangerous and could kill him or cause him permanent injury. Because Williams has trained in mixed martial arts for more than 10 years, he was able to specifically identify Chauvin’s maneuver as a “blood choke,” a form of restraint that is designed to cut off blood flow to the brain. The immediate result will render a victim unconscious, while prolonged usage can cause brain damage or death.

Nelson sought to restrict Williams from testifying about his knowledge of chokeholds from his MMA training, while Frank argued that this specific knowledge should be heard by the jury once the trial officially begins on March 29th. Judge Peter Cahill ruled that Williams’s knowledge could be considered specialized—“almost expert”—and ruled that Williams could testify about his training and his observations on the day. Williams will be restricted from using terms that make a medical judgement during his testimony. This decision goes hand in hand with Cahill allowing eyewitness Genevieve Hansen, an off-duty firefighter, to testify about her opinion about the need to give Floyd emergency medical treatment, and is clearly in the prosecution’s favor.

The other piece of big procedural news also fell in the prosecution’s favor. The Minnesota Supreme Court declined to review the Court of Appeals decision that Judge Cahill dismissed the charge of 3rd degree murder incorrectly. Judge Cahill will now be required to re-examine his decision to dismiss the charge, which doesn’t require the prosecution to prove that Chauvin intended to kill George Floyd. Instead, it requires them to prove that Chauvin’s actions were a sign of a “depraved mind” who didn’t care what harm he caused.

This issue has been a point of contention since the first day of the trial, when attorneys for the prosecution sought to delay all proceedings, including jury selection, until the charge could officially be revisited. Judge Cahill instead ruled that “until told to stop” jury selection would proceed due to his belief that the charge could be re-added later. Now, Cahill will have to re-hear arguments from attorneys from both sides about the charge.

This is not the first time the charge of 3rd degree murder has played a significant role in bringing Chauvin to justice. Chauvin actually agreed to a 3rd degree murder plea deal last June, shortly after he killed Floyd. As part of the plea deal, Chauvin’s attorneys negotiated that he not be charged with federal civil rights violations and that serve his sentence in federal prison, which meant that the deal also had to be agreed to by the US Department of Justice. Then US Attorney General William Barr—best known as a Trump appointee who enforced many of the former President’s most controversial and racist policies—rejected Chauvin’s plea, because he felt protestors across the US would think it would be too lenient.

Jury selection began shortly after motions were heard and took up the rest of the day in court. Potential jurors today were more obvious in their beliefs than in yesterday’s selection, with at least one obviously pro-police juror being dismissed, and a few who had stated that they supported Black Lives Matter and had participated in racial justice efforts also being dismissed. The two jurors selected, a white male in his 30s (Juror 20) and a West African immigrant male in his late 20s/early 30s (Juror 27), both appeared to be fairly reserved and centrist/moderate in their responses. for example, Juror 20 stated that he assumed that if someone is handcuffed in police custody, he assumes there must be a reason, and Juror 27 stated that he supported Black Lives Matter but also believed that police needed to be funded and that they kept his community safe.

The unfortunate reality of the criminal justice system as it is playing out in the early days of the Chauvin trial is that those with particularly strong viewpoints are going to get pushed out almost immediately. In fact, for most of the rejected jurors of the past two days, it’s clear that the attorneys questioning them are trying to get them to make obviously biased statements so they can be dismissed “for cause” rather than use up one of the limited number of peremptory challenges allotted to each side. (Lawyers are not required to provide a reason for a peremptory challenge, although the opposing lawyer can object if they suspect a discriminatory motivation such a race, as we saw on Tuesday.)

The five jurors seated so far are a logical result of system that filters out strong viewpoints. For Judge Cahill, the hard line seems to be if someone can say under oath that they can “put aside their opinions” and only consider evidence and testimony presented in the courtroom. If someone can only say, “I’ll try,” they’re out.

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