Where is the line drawn on impartiality? Chauvin’s trial offers a glimpse into juror elimination

A defendant and his attorney listen to a judge during a trial.
Defense attorney Eric Nelson (left) and defendant former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin (right) listen to Judge Peter Cahill during pretrial motions on March 11 at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis. Chauvin is charged in the killing of George Floyd.
Via Court TV

After two weeks of intense and detailed questioning of potential jurors, pretrial publicity and other legal twists with delays, a jury panel is set and ready to weigh evidence against the former Minneapolis police officer accused of killing George Floyd.

The jury panel that will decide the case against former police officer Derek Chauvin is more racially diverse than Hennepin County as a whole. Six of the 15 people empaneled are Black or multiracial. 

Having people of color on the jury eases activist concerns about reaching a fair and just verdict. But the jury selection process has provided a window into an imperfect system that legal observers say highlights larger philosophical questions about impartiality and fairness. 

The process involves eliminating people who lawyers on both sides believe aren't sympathetic to their client or case, said Ayah Helmy, a lawyer and adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota. She said people often think of diversity in terms of skin color, and not experience.

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"It's really frustrating when you're watching this jury selection process, that anyone who has any sort of opinion about the system is weeded out,” she said. 

It's possible that once alternates are excused, that half of the panel that will end up in the deliberation room will be people of color. Legal experts say this is almost unheard of in Hennepin County. The county population is just 17 percent Black or multiracial.

One member of the jury, a Black man who immigrated to the United States 14 years ago, shared his reaction to the incident during questioning. He wrote on a jury questionnaire that what happened Floyd could have happened to him.

But upon questioning from Chauvin’s attorney, the juror clarified: “I also used to live not far from that area when I first met my wife. So that's why I said it could have happened to me. It could have been anybody.”

Others said they couldn't watch the full bystander video capturing Floyd's death because it was too disturbing. Two said they have relatives in law enforcement. One retired Black grandmother who volunteers with youth in her spare time says she believes strongly in jury duty.

The people who ended up on the jury said they could put aside any conclusions that they drew from the bystander video showing Chauvin kneeling on Floyd's neck. 

Legal observers say that the jury selection process in this case has been an opportunity to examine the role of jurors. 

Helmy says their role is to bring common sense into that deliberation room. But it's not that simple. 

“Common sense,” she said, may tell them that the video showed Floyd being killed on camera. 

Two law enforcement officers walk behind barricades.
Two law enforcement officers walk behind barricades in front of the Hennepin County Government Center on March 3 in Minneapolis. Security measures have been increased downtown for the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in George Floyd's death.
Kerem Yucel | AFP via Getty Images

“But then the lawyers are going to come in, and then the question of causation is going to be that thing that may very likely create reasonable doubt,” she said.

One central issue will be Floyd's cause of death. Juror No. 96, a white woman in her 50s, shared her opinion of the cause of death with defense attorney Eric Nelson. She wrote in a jury questionnaire that the restraint Chauvin used “ultimately was responsible for Mr. Floyd's demise."

But the juror, who was seated, acknowledged that the video doesn't tell the whole story.

"The video may not show the entirety of the situation of what happened,” she said. “It's a snippet of what happened. I don't know what happened before and I don't really know what happened after.”

Chauvin's attorney Nelson will seize on this. He is expected to argue that Floyd's drug history and health problems factored into his death. 

The prosecution is expected to focus on what happened that moment — and whether a reasonable police officer would have acted the same way that Chauvin did. 

Jurors listening to evidence about drug addiction and previous brushes with the law are going to have their own thoughts and opinions going into the jury room. Yes, they can set them aside, but it could cloud their perception.

And it's why legal experts say that seating a jury that is both reflective of the community and can handle these nuances of the law is not an easy task.