The Chauvin Trial: What Happened in Week 1, Why It Happened, and What to Expect in Week 2
Okay, first things first. Everyone repeat after me, on the count of 3, okay?
After a full week of watching motions, counter-motions, jurors selected, and plenty of jurors dismissed, I think we all needed that. Right? Great.
If there’s one major takeaway from the first week of the trial of disgraced ex-Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, it’s how impenetrable, arcane, and disconnected from the world where most people live the criminal justice system can be. In taking on the project of reporting on this, I am pulling from knowledge I’ve amassed over the years of how the criminal justice system works in general, extensive research, occasional leaning on good friends who are public defenders, and you know what? I still end up scrambling through an internet search to figure out something that doesn’t quite make sense, so Move For Justice News readers have as much accurate information, delivered in as plain language as possible, injecting as little of my own opinion as I can into the matter. (I save that, and my I statements, for weekend wrap-ups.)
The Chauvin trial week 1 had its fair share of major events, but also raised its fair share of questions, and it’s important to take a moment and try to unpack what’s happened with an eye towards predicting what the coming week will be. I’m not going to rehash the daily coverage, since it’s right at your fingertips, but I think it’s important to dig into the big stuff for week 1. So, in no particular order:
1) The civil settlement has no functioning impact on the criminal case, but it still creates questions about responsibility and accountability. Minneapolis agreed to pay George Floyd’s family $27 million dollars—the largest settlement granted a family before conclusion of a criminal trial in history—but the civil suit has no relation to the criminal trial, and discussion of settlement will probably not be allowed in court. At the moment of the announcement of the settlement, the action inside the courtroom was exactly as it has been all week: selecting or dismissing potential jurors through the process known as voir dire.
But—and this is a very big but—as much as a criminal trial seeks to exist in a vacuum, the settlement does have major implications. As in similar settlements in what are now tragically and embarrassingly familiar situations, it does little to hold the perpetrators of violence against the Black community accountable, yet doesn’t move the stakeholders in the system that allows those perpetrators to thrive to actually enact any real change. $27 million dollars matters very little if it has no economic impact on Chauvin, his former police department, or the organized federation (I’m loath to call that organization a “Union”) that so ruthlessly defends and enables his, and others’, behavior. Imagine a world where a $27 million settlement for a murderous cop actually directly defunded the police that amount? Even the most pro-cop people would demand better of their police.
2) When it comes to motions, the prosecution is currently winning, hands down, especially but not limited to the 3rd Degree Murder charge. At their simplest, pre-trial motions are the equivalent of kids fighting over a game of Monopoly. Do you play the Free Parking money rule or is that some made-up bullshit? Do you auction properties when someone lands on it but doesn’t want to buy it, or is that annoying as hell? In other words, the motions that have happed so far function to sort out these differences within the bigger rules of the courtroom (and the law). Everyone in that room, judge, defense, and prosecution, knows how to roll the dice and move their piece around the board. But so far, Judge Peter Cahill has consistently ruled in favor of the prosecution when it comes to what happens when you land. Allowing eyewitness Donald Williams to talk about his knowledge of chokeholds because of his MMA training is a big deal. Allowing eyewitness Genevieve Hansen to talk about her background as a firefighter and how that informed what she saw as Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck is another big deal. And while defense attorney Eric Nelson continues to push that footage from Floyd’s previous 2019 arrest be admitted, Cahill continues to be uninterested in indulging him.
Most important, of course, is the reinstatement of the 3rd Degree Murder charge, which itself was a confusing saga that extended for several days during week 1. The delay ultimately came down to whether the Minnesota Court of Appeals had officially returned jurisdiction over the charge to Cahill’s court. Once that was officially complete, Cahill was fairly quick to reinstate the charge, even if he was obviously frustrated with how the Court of Appeals made him look in the process. In essence, his statement into the record upon re-instating was “the Court of Appeals said I didn’t read something, but I did, and I’m not going to let them say otherwise.”
3) Jury selection is like watching people making sausage at a factory, then tear apart the raw meat, smear it on a wall, scrape it off, and then try to make it into sausage again. So far in the trial, seven jurors have been selected, in a process that has 90% of my barely-glanced-at-for-my-own-sanity social media scratching their heads. And rightfully so, because jury selection is simultaneously one of the most important parts of a criminal trial, and the part people are least exposed to or informed about. (If you’ve been put in the unfortunate situation having to spend extensive time in criminal court, they don’t exactly stop to explain things. For those lucky enough to not have that experience, and whose primary knowledge of the criminal justice system is pop culture, it’s not like there’s a TV show called Law & Order: Picking Teams for Kickball.)
Since, at the pace the court is running, we can reasonably expect three or four more days of jury selection, here’s a detailed primer on how things work in general, and how that’s playing out in this specific trial. For a criminal trial, a pool of potential jurors, randomly selected from “qualified citizens” in the court jurisdiction where the alleged crime was committed, is called for a specific trial. The purpose of the selection process, including questioning of the potential jurors (called voir dire), is to find a group of people who are impartial and as free of bias as possible. (Something, as I’ve noted before, is next to impossible in a case as infamous as this one.) That group of people is then tasked with hearing all the testimony, reviewing all the evidence, and either 100% agreeing to convict on one or more charges or 100% agreeing to acquit. Anything in between is a mistrial and then the prosecution—also referred to as the State—has to decide if they want to try it again.
One way this process is running differently than your average trial is that it’s a much bigger pool of potential jurors than normal, and all potential jurors were required to fill out an extensive pre-trial questionnaire. Usually, attorneys for both sides don’t know anything about the jurors going in to voir dire, but in this case, they have the questionnaires as a starting point. This has allowed the two attorneys to agree to dismiss some jurors without the voir dire process. It’s also allowed both sides to do background investigations on potential jurors.
There are two different ways a potential juror can be dismissed, or “struck,” in the selection process. The first is a “peremptory challenge.” Attorneys can use this challenge to dismiss a potential juror without stating a reason, but they have a limited number of peremptory challenges to use. An opposing attorney can object to a peremptory challenge and request a ruling from the judge if they feel their opponent is discriminating specifically based on race, sex, ethnicity or religion, something attorney for State Steve Schleicher has done twice when defense attorney Eric Nelson has dismissed people of color. (In both cases, Judge Peter Cahill has ruled that Nelson had reasons not based on race for striking the juror.) In the Chauvin trial, the defense has 15 peremptory challenges available to them, and the prosecution has 9.
The second, more difficult way to strike a juror, is “for cause.” “For cause” is where one or both attorneys think the juror is not qualified or capable of following the rules the judge has set down, and the judge agrees with them. Unlike peremptory challenges, attorneys can attempt to dismiss an unlimited number of jurors for cause, but they have to prove that reason—the cause—to the judge, and the opposing attorney has the opportunity to argue against it. Much of what we saw last week during voir dire was attorneys from both sides trying to get potential jurors to say something that would qualify them to be dismissed for cause, or trying to get potential jurors to not say something, depending on whether they wanted the juror to be seated or not.
And through all this weirdness, the attorneys for both sides, and the judge, are trying to find people who don’t know anything about a murder that nearly the entire world has seen video footage of, and people who can state, under oath, that if they do know something about it, that they can still be impartial and unbiased if they’re picked to be on the jury, even though it’s impossible for any rational person outside the courtroom to believe that anyone could have seen that video and not develop some pretty serious bias about it. Plus those people, who are legally guaranteed time off from work for jury duty but not guaranteed anything resembling replacement for lost wages, need to not go broke taking a month off work during a pandemic in which a lot of citizens are living paycheck to paycheck, which systemically discriminates against lower-income people.
Confusing the matter further is that the justice system is notably un-nuanced and rigid in its interpretation of words, so there’s not an established mechanism to understand Black Lives Matter as a concept/value/belief, which is also related to some organizations called Black Lives Matter. So listening to potential jurors and attorneys talking about Black Lives Matter is akin to nails on a chalkboard, with at least one juror basically saying (me paraphrasing here), “I believe Black Live Matter but I don’t completely support Black Lives Matter because I don’t like some of the tactics or focuses of Black Lives Matter but I do think Black Lives Matter insofar as Black Lives should Matter as much as anyone else because All Lives Matter.”
What. The. Everliving. Seven jurors selected, five more plus two alternates to go.
So what is this week going to look like? Jury selection will continue as both attorneys attempt to manage their remaining peremptory challenges while working to find cause to dismiss. Since potential jurors’ questionnaires have given both Nelson and Schleicher intel on who’s coming next, be sure they’ve both noted who their ideal jurors should be and who they absolutely do not want on the jury, and have game plans in mind for each person before they even walk into the courtroom. Selection should wrap Wednesday or Thursday, and then the court will recess until the trial itself begins on March 29th. I doubt that anyone is going to shout “OBJECTION” at the top of their lungs. I further doubt that we will see a juror who obviously leans pro-Black Lives or pro-cop seated. More than anything, though, I doubt any of the coming week is going to feel even close to resembling what folks on the street would call Justice.