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Chauvin Trial Day 8: A Breakeven Day As Two Jurors Added and Two Seated Jurors Dismissed

By King Demetrius Pendleton and Tigger Lunney

On a day which began with dismissing two already seated jurors in the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, Juror 76 stood out as a model of what a person doing their civic duty should be. While other jurors have seemed either very interested, or very not interested in serving on the jury, Juror 76 was ready to do what he had to do. He was forthcoming with his opinions even as he nervously jiggled his legs. He answered questions quickly and to the point. He was open about his experience with racism as a Black man. He was honest about his family member who had once plead guilty, and was sentenced, for a crime. He was so forthcoming that he almost gave out his address.

He’d served on a jury before and knew how they worked. He served in the military. He didn’t do social media. He liked CNN, but turned it off when the news got too upsetting. Throughout his voir dire he was quiet but efficient with words. He didn’t equivocate. He believed that George Floyd shouldn’t have died. He wanted to be on the jury because he wanted to understand what happened and why. And when asked the ultimate question, “Can you put everything you’ve learned about this trial and your personal experience aside and be impartial? Can you follow the law as the judge explains it?” his answer was more assured than any other juror interviewed since selection began a week ago: “Yes.”

So much of the art of jury selection, exhibited by both defense attorney Eric Nelson and State attorney Steve Schleicher, is to get people to say what they really think. As shown over the past several days, it’s a complicated process that can sometimes involve asking a version of the same question over and over again. A good attorney for either side looks for bias that will disqualify someone for cause, seeks to draw that out of a juror as they sit on the stand, under oath, under a microscope. With Juror 76, there was no messing around. He had decades of life experience that formed his point of view, but remained firm in the idea that, when it came to being a juror, there was a job to do and he would show up and do it. After all, he’d done it before, so he knew it better than anyone. Could he find Derek Chauvin not guilty? “Yes.” Could he explain such a decision to friends and family who might disagree with a not guilty verdict? “Yes.”

Of course, Nelson said “no,” and sent him home. Judge Peter Cahill even noted that there was not enough in Juror 76’s answers to qualify for dismissal by cause. Instead, Nelson had to use a peremptory challenge. Attorneys from both sides are free to dismiss a limited number of potential jurors without justifying their decision, as long as it’s not exclusively based on race. Juror 76 certainly shared enough things about his point of view that Nelson could point to as a reason to dismiss beyond being Black, but what can’t be ignored is that what bias Juror 76 displayed was inextricably tied to his life experience as a Black man.

The Chauvin trial has turned the traditional issues of race in the criminal justice system upside down. Where historically it would be a prosecutor trying to find the jury most likely to convict a person of color (the ability to argue against a peremptory challenge due to racial bias was instituted to prevent racist prosecutors from stacking juries entirely with white people), here, it’s the defense attorney trying to find jurors most likely to let a white man off. And while a few people of color have been seated so far, only one of them, Juror 52, is a black man born in America.

This isn’t to say that the seated jurors of other backgrounds, white or persons of color, won’t be capable jurors. On that point, only time (and the result of the trial) will tell for sure. But while there are rules in place preventing someone from being dismissed from jury service for skin color, the rejection of Juror 76 would appear to say that someone can be rejected for the experiences that have come as a result of their skin color, no matter how clear they are in their willingness to put the law and evidence before that. This simply is not something asked of white jurors, not in this trial, or any other one.

Two additional jurors—one white woman and one man who appeared to be West African—were seated today, while two jurors seated last week were dismissed by Judge Cahill after he questioned them about their exposure to news of the $27m settlement the city of Minneapolis gave Floyd’s family. Although there are still over 200 potential jurors who could fill out the jury, the sense of frustration in the courtroom was palpable, with Cahill commenting before he adjourned for the day, “at least we didn’t go backwards.”

CORRECTION: In a previously published version of this article, it incorrectly stated that no Black men both in America have been selected for the jury. The article has been updated to reflect that one Black man was seated, on Monday March 15th.

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