George Floyd case: Derek Chauvin trial jury selection delayed amid wrangling over 3rd-degree murder charge
Prosecutors seek to delay jury selection until Minnesota Supreme Court weighs in
Minneapolis remained on edge Monday with jury selection in limbo in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the ex-police officer who pressed his knee into the back of George Floyd’s neck before his death while in custody last May.
Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill said Monday he was sending potential jurors home for the day, suspending the start of the jury selection process until at least Tuesday. But jury selection might be delayed even further, as state prosecutors filed a new motion to the Court of Appeals asking to suspend the trial until the Minnesota Supreme Court weighs in on whether to reinstate a third-degree murder charge against Chauvin.
The motion argues Cahill does not have jurisdiction over the case until the state Supreme Court rules on the matter. Awaiting a response from the Court of Appeals, court has been adjounred and will reconvent at 1:30 CT to hear additional motions. On Friday, a panel of appeals court judges asked Cahill to consider reinstating a third-degree murder charge against Chauvin that he dismissed last fall.
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Chauvin's attorney Eric Nelson told the judge Monday he felt jury selection could proceed. Nelson said he would file an appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court as soon as possible, by Tuesday at the latest. He technically has 30 days to file the petition but Nelson said his aim was "not to cause delay."
Matthew Frank, Minnesota's assistant attorney general, asked Cahill to delay jury selection, citing concerns that the jurors selected now might be thrown out should the lesser charge be reinstated. Prosecutors do not want a possible conviction in the case overturned on a future appeal.
No one was gathering inside the courtroom in the family seats during the first short session Monday. By the second session, George Floyd's sister, Bridgett Floyd, had taken her seat, Fox 9 Minneapolis reported. Chauvin was escorted into the courtroom by his attorneys. Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison sat with his three state prosecutors at their table.
Monday morning saw protesters marching peacefully through the streets on their way to the courthouse, where jury selection was previously scheduled to begin after 9 a.m. CT.
After violent rioting and destruction gripped Minneapolis and several U.S. cities in the days following Floyd’s death on May 25, city and state officials have been preparing security measures for months ahead of the trial against Chauvin. Fencing and barricades have been erected around the Hennepin County Government Center as well as several of the city’s police stations.
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Several demonstrations across the city over the weekend remained peaceful, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported, but one in George Floyd Square, at the intersection of E. 38th Street and Chicago Avenue, renamed to honor Floyd, became more intense. A 30-year-old man was fatally shot in the area Saturday night.
How the jury selection process works
Jury selection will end after 14 people are picked – 12 jurors who will deliberate the case and two alternates who won’t be part of deliberations unless needed. The process is estimated to take about three weeks and opening statements will begin on March 29 at the earliest.
The jurors will be escorted to the courthouse daily and sequestered during deliberations. Their names will be kept confidential until further order of the court.
Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, argued that pretrial publicity of the case and the subsequent violent unrest in Minneapolis would make it impossible to find an impartial jury in Hennepin County. But Judge Peter Cahill said last years that moving the trial probably wouldn't cure the problem of a potentially tainted jury pool because "no corner of the State of Minnesota" has been shielded from pretrial publicity.
The potential jurors — who must be at least 18, U.S. citizens and residents of Hennepin County — were sent questionnaires in December to determine how much they have heard about the case and whether they’ve formed any opinions. Besides biographical and demographic information, jurors were asked about prior contacts with police, whether they have protested against police brutality and whether they believe the justice system is fair.
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Some of the questions get specific, such as how often a potential juror has watched the bystander video of Floyd’s arrest, or whether they carried a sign at a protest and what that sign said.
Unlike typical jury selection proceedings, this jury pool will be questioned one by one instead of in a group. The judge, defense attorney and prosecutors will all get to ask questions. The defense can object to up to 15 potential jurors without giving a reason; prosecutors can block up to nine with no reason given. The other side can object to these so-called peremptory challenges if they believe the sole reason for disqualifying a juror is race or gender.
Both sides can also argue to dismiss an unlimited number of jurors "for cause," meaning they must provide a reason why they believe that juror shouldn’t serve.
Two key questions: Did Chauvin's actions cause Floyd's death, and were his actions reasonable?
Chauvin's trial is expected to come down to two key questions: Did Chauvin's actions cause Floyd's death, and were his actions reasonable?
The second-degree murder charge requires prosecutors to prove Chauvin caused Floyd's death while committing or trying to commit a felony — in this case, third-degree assault. The manslaughter charge has a lower bar, requiring proof that Chauvin caused Floyd's death through negligence that created an unreasonable risk, and consciously took the chance of causing severe injury or death.
Exactly how Floyd died is shaping up as a major flashpoint of the trial.
Chauvin's attorney, Eric Nelson, argues in court documents that Floyd likely died from fentanyl he consumed, or a combination of fentanyl, methamphetamine and underlying health conditions — not as a result of Chauvin's knee on his neck.
But Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill wrote last fall that for the second-degree murder charge, prosecutors don't have to prove that Chauvin was the sole cause of Floyd's death — only that his conduct was a "substantial causal factor."
An autopsy report by the Hennepin County Medical Examiner Dr. Andrew Baker said Floyd had no bruising on his back of neck, the amount of fentanyl in his body was higher than in chronic pain patients and that his lungs weighed two to three times their normal weight due to excess fluid, the Minneapolis Tribune reported. Floyd posthumously tested positive for COVID-19.
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The medical examiner ruled the death a homicide by "cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression." Baker also named "arteriosclerotic and hypertensive heart disease" and drug use as "other significant conditions."
Floyd's family paid to have a separate autopsy performed that ruled asphyxiation as the cause of death.
Prosecutors, however, have submitted a list of previous instances in which Chauvin used chokeholds or similar restraints on the job. Cahill ruled they can admit only one as evidence: a 2017 arrest in which Chauvin restrained a female by placing his knee on her neck while she was prone on the ground.
Cahill also ruled that prosecutors can tell jurors about a 2015 incident in which Chauvin saw other officers place a suicidal, intoxicated male in a side-recovery position after using a stun gun on him. Cahill said prosecutors can introduce that if they can show Chauvin was present when a medical professional said that the male could have died if officers had prolonged the detention.
Minneapolis and Hennepin County officials said they would spend at least $1 million to put up fences and other barricades before the trial against Chauvin.
Minneapolis officials estimated $645,000 would be spent to protect the city's five police precincts, City Hall and the Public Service Building. County officials said the initial cost for leasing and installing barriers around the Hennepin County Government Center is about $420,000.
"Some in our communities may find some of the environmental structures that they see — barricades and barriers and fences — perhaps a little bit daunting," Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said at a news conference last week. "But, as we saw the events of Jan. 6, that is that preventative tool that we have to consider and have to look at."
Arrandondo was referring to the U.S. Capitol insurrection Jan. 6. Some City Council members and community groups have criticized the security efforts and plans to bring in thousands of police officers and National Guard members, fearing it will only escalate tensions in the community.
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But others say they want city leaders to do everything they can to prevent a repeat of last year's protests that turned violent following Floyd's death. The unrest that began in Minneapolis spread worldwide and led to a national reckoning on race.
Hennepin County is using money from its facility services budget to cover the costs. Minneapolis leaders hope they will eventually be able to use state aid to cover expenses, city coordinator Mark Ruff said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.