The murder of George Floyd

Explainer: Role of alternate jurors in ex-officer's trial

Jury chairs sit socially distanced in a court room.
Jury chairs sit spaced out inside of the Hennepin County courtroom where former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin's trial takes place.
Via Court TV

Updated: March 22, 5:58 a.m. | Posted: March 17, 4:09 p.m.

Attorneys in the trial of a former Minneapolis police officer charged in George Floyd’s death are wrangling over not just the 12 jurors who will decide the verdict but also up to four alternates.

Derek Chauvin's trial is moving forward amid national attention around Floyd's death, plus a pandemic that could potentially disrupt proceedings expected to last several weeks. That's why the alternates will play important role, ready to sub in for other jurors who are unable to continue with the trial.

Here’s a look at how alternate jurors will work in the trial of the former officer charged with murder and manslaughter:

What are alternate jurors?

During the criminal trial, alternate jurors will be indistinguishable from their peers. In fact, they won't even know they are alternates. The judge won't reveal who the alternative jurors are until attorneys have finished making their cases. That's so that the alternates don't yawn off during proceedings and are ready to step in if another juror is unable to continue.

Legal experts say the final panelists chosen almost always serve as alternates, but court spokesperson Kyle Christopherson has said that wouldn’t necessarily be the case for Chauvin’s jury. He said alternates could be chosen “many different ways,” but declined to give details.

Why are they needed?

Alternate jurors will step in if a juror can't continue in the trial for reasons such as illness, a family emergency, or further exposure to information on Floyd's death that would taint their decision.

“In any long trial, there are just things that come up in people’s personal lives,” said Mary Moriarty, a former Hennepin County chief public defender.

But Moriarty said alternate jurors will be even more important in this trial, given the high-profile nature of Floyd's death and the ongoing pandemic.

Even finding 14 people to serve on the jury has been a challenge for such a well-known case. Attorneys have questioned potential jurors about their ability to keep an open mind, how they resolve conflicts, their views on the criminal justice system, and whether they felt safe serving on the jury.

What do they do during jury deliberations?

After attorneys present their arguments, criminal prosecution rules stipulate that alternate jurors “must be discharged” when the jury goes into deliberations. But Minnesota criminal defense attorneys said the judge could make sure that alternates maintain their ability to rejoin the jury if needed.

Joe Friedberg, a defense attorney, said he expected the judge to make the call to sequester alternates during jury deliberations. He said in his experience, alternates are called upon once in every four or five trials.

But Moriarty said the judge could also just instruct alternates to refrain from researching the trial on their own during deliberations, while stopping short of sequestering them with the rest of the jury.

Just six sentences are devoted to alternate jurors in Minnesota’s Rules of Criminal Procedure, the rules that govern how criminal prosecutions work in the state. The rules state that if a juror can't continue during deliberations, a mistrial must be declared unless the parties agree that the jury can proceed with fewer members.

Moriarty said she “could not imagine” a defense attorney agreeing to allow a jury to reach a verdict without the full 12 members.

Clarification (March 22, 2021): This story has been updated to make clear that while the last jurors chosen for a panel typically serve as alternates, the court has not specified whether that will be the case in Derek Chauvin’s trial.