The incident, which was filmed and viewed by millions of people around the world, sparked a summer of nationwide protests and forced a national reckoning on issues of race, policing and social justice.
Chauvin, a 19-year veteran of the Minneapolis police department before he was fired in May, is charged with second- and third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter in Floyd’s death.
While potential jurors being interviewed for the case were told by Chauvin’s defense attorney that it was “not about race” or “broader social issues,” few observers believe race won’t shape the trial, the most high-profile police brutality case since the 1991 beating of Rodney King by four White Los Angeles police officers.
Many Black Americans will be watching to see what justice means after seeing so many cases in which police officers have largely been acquitted or gone uncharged in the killing of Black men and women.
Eric Garner. Breonna Taylor. Daniel Prude.
“In terms of public consciousness, this is all about race,” said Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor who teaches criminal law and race relations at Georgetown University Law Center. “The irony is that race may not come up in the actual courtroom during the trial. That’s a strategic decision that each side will have to make.”
But even if race is not a subject that is raised by the prosecution or defense, experts believe it will almost certainly shape how the jury perceives testimony and evidence in the case and ultimately the deliberations and verdict — in part because of the surprising diversity of the jury itself.
Of the 12 jurors and three alternates seated in the case, there is one Black woman, two multiracial women, three White men, three Black men and six White women. Four jurors are in their 20s, three are in their 30s, three are in their 40s, four are in their 50s and one is in their 60s.
Hennepin County, where Minneapolis is located, is 74 percent White, according to Census Bureau data.
“This jury is much more diverse compared to what we usually see,” said Mary Moriarty, former chief public defender in Hennepin County.
Over the past year, Hennepin County juries, which have been dominated by White residents, were even more so because of the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus pandemic on communities of color, Moriarty said. More people of color were excused from jury duty during the pandemic because of economic or employment hardships or responsibilities at home.
But Moriarty said the ongoing pandemic may also have contributed to the makeup of the Chauvin jury in other ways, pointing to the large number of young people on the jury, including people of color. The pool also was widened to more than 300 people — about six times the number usually summoned for a murder trial, and older jurors were given the opportunity to opt out because of concerns about the pandemic.
Many experts also credited the diversity of the jury to Hennepin County District Court Judge Peter A. Cahill, who is overseeing the case, and his application of a more modern standard of what juror impartiality means in a community where virtually everyone has watched the video of Floyd’s death, knows something about the case and has grappled with questions about race because of it.
In past cases, defense attorneys frequently have removed jurors for acknowledging racial injustice or even having their own lived experiences being Black in the United States, claiming it compromised jurors’ impartiality, said Sonali Chakravarti, a Wesleyan University professor who studies the role of race in jury selection.
“In this case, people were allowed to have more complex views about race,” Chakravarti said. “Cahill saw that you could have an understanding of historical injustice in this country but also respect the formats of the trial and protection of the defendant.”
The debate over race and how it might figure in Chauvin’s trial has been playing out among those concerned that the diversity of the jury doesn’t mean people understand the lived experience of Black Minneapolis residents who are policed by a department long accused of racism and excessive force against minorities.
Two of the Black men picked for the jury said they were immigrants who live in the suburbs and had never interacted with Minneapolis police. Both said they thought police officers made communities safer and oppose efforts to defund the police. Still, one of the men — identified in court as Juror No. 27 — said he had been affected by the video of Floyd’s death, telling his wife, “It could have been me.”
Some in the Black community have accused the prosecution and defense of looking for a certain kind of Black person to sit on the jury and not people who are “empathetic to what George Floyd experienced at the hands of Derek Chauvin and the other officers who killed him,” said Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil rights attorney and longtime Minneapolis activist who leads the Racial Justice Network.
Activists have called out the elimination of another Black man who said he experienced racism frequently. The man recalled how Minneapolis police often drove by scenes of shootings in his South Minneapolis neighborhood with their windows down, playing the song “Another One Bites the Dust.” But he strongly insisted that he could be impartial in the case and wanted to serve to better understand what justice means for people who are Black.
“As a Black man, you see a lot of Black people get killed and no one’s held accountable for it, and you wonder why or what was the decisions,” the man told Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson. “So, with this, maybe I’ll be in the room to know why.”
Nelson used a defense strike to eliminate the man from the jury, claiming he had “bias” toward the Minneapolis police.
Even if race is not explicitly mentioned at trial, jurors tend to view witnesses and evidence based on their own experiences and beliefs about how the world works. In December, the court mailed jurors a 16-page questionnaire soliciting their extensive views, including on issues such as racial inequality, the policing of Black people and movements such as Black Lives Matter, which led to hours of meticulous questioning during jury selection.
One of the impacts of the racial reckoning that has taken place after Floyd’s death is that “jurors are coming into the courtroom with a much more nuanced understanding of what’s happening with race in this country right now,” Chakravarti said. “Certain stories are going to be more legible to them [so] they are going to think there is a way that race could be a factor even when it’s not mentioned explicitly. . . . Race will infuse that whole process.”
Chauvin, 45, faces up to 40 years in prison on the murder charges, but could serve as few as 10 based on state guidelines and the judge’s discretion.
Prosecutors are expected to use their opening statement to tell the story of what happened to Floyd, 46, on May 25 as he was confronted by police while sitting in a parked car at the corner of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis. Chauvin was among four officers who responded to a convenience store clerk’s 911 call about a counterfeit $20 bill that a customer had allegedly passed. The other three officers who responded to the scene — J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao — are charged with aiding and abetting and are scheduled to be tried separately in August. They also were fired.
A store employee pointed out Floyd to Kueng and Lane, rookies who were first on the scene and who had been on the force less than a week. Police body-camera video filed as evidence in the case shows that Lane pulled a gun on Floyd within 15 seconds of encountering him in the parked vehicle. He did not tell Floyd who he was or what he was investigating, causing Floyd to panic, cry and beg officers not to kill him.
The police video shows Floyd appearing increasingly anxious and afraid of the officers. He complained of being claustrophobic as they tried to place him in a squad car, a move that he fought against. Chauvin and Thao arrived on the scene during the struggle. Thao suggested placing Floyd on the ground, where Lane held Floyd’s legs, Kueng held his back and Chauvin pinned him at the neck.
Chauvin pressed his knee into the man’s neck for more than nine minutes as Floyd repeatedly complained of struggling to breathe before becoming unresponsive. Chauvin ignored cries from bystanders, who said Floyd wasn’t breathing. The officer resisted when Lane asked whether they should roll Floyd over after he stopped moving, according to body camera video. When Kueng told Chauvin he could no longer detect Floyd’s pulse, the officer kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for at least two more minutes — removing it only when he was nudged by a responding paramedic.
Prosecutors are expected to play footage of the scene to the jury during opening statements Monday and argue that Chauvin used excessive force against Floyd, ignoring his cries of distress and keeping him pinned to the ground even after he stopped resisting.
On the murder charges, prosecutors will have to show beyond a reasonable doubt that Chauvin’s actions were a “substantial causal factor” in Floyd’s death while assaulting him. Prosecutors do not have to prove those actions were “the sole cause of death” or “the specific mechanism of death,” according an October ruling from Cahill.
Chauvin’s defense is expected to argue that Floyd did not die because of the former officer’s knee but rather from other health issues and a drug overdose, citing an autopsy that recorded high levels of fentanyl and other substances in Floyd’s system. Chauvin’s attorney is expected to tell the jury about a May 2019 incident between Floyd and Minneapolis police in which he exhibited similar behavior to the 2020 incident in which he died.
One of the biggest unknowns as testimony begins in the case is whether Nelson will address the issue of race in his defense — acknowledging that his client is White and Floyd is Black and trying to counter claims that his actions were based on race.
In jury selection, Nelson addressed the issue of race only a handful of times, but it was enough to spark curiosity about whether he will address the issue at trial.
During pretrial motions, prosecutors successfully sought to exclude “any argument, evidence or testimony” regarding the Minneapolis Police Department’s “decision-making” that led to Chauvin’s firing. Nelson has argued that his client was fired because of bias, not for cause, and that Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, who is Black, caved to community pressure, including from Black community members — suggesting his willingness to raise the issue of race.
“One question would be, should they try to communicate to the jury that Chauvin is not a racist?” Butler, the Georgetown Law professor, said. “That would be explicitly acknowledging the role of race, and that usually doesn’t happen even in the most high-profile racially charged cases.”
One way to address the issue, Butler said, would be to call character witnesses — including people of color — to speak on behalf of Chauvin or to have the officer take the stand in his own defense. A witness list disclosed by the defense did not appear to include any obvious family members or friends, and Nelson has not indicated whether his client, who has never spoken publicly about the incident and apparently did not offer his version of events to his supervisors, will testify.
Inside the heavily fortified downtown Minneapolis courthouse where the trial is being held, Chauvin said nothing as his attorney spent 11 days questioning the jurors who will ultimately decide his fate about their views on Black Lives Matter, discrimination and other issues of race.
“You understand that ultimately this trial is not about broader social issues?” Nelson said.
Nelson twice told one potential juror — a White woman in her 50s who said she “strongly agreed” that Black people are discriminated against in the criminal justice system — that the “case is not about race at all.”
Asked if she could put her opinions aside and judge Chauvin based on the evidence, the woman replied, “Yes.”