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Derek Chauvin trial: Judge dismisses two seated jurors who heard about George Floyd family settlement

Two jurors, previously picked to serve in the Derek Chauvin murder trial, were excused on March 17 after they seemed unsure if they could be impartial. (Video: The Washington Post)

MINNEAPOLIS — The judge overseeing the first criminal trial related to George Floyd’s death on Wednesday dismissed two jurors already seated in the case after they told the court they had seen headlines about the city’s $27 million civil settlement with Floyd’s family and weren’t sure they could be impartial in the case of Derek Chauvin, one of the former Minneapolis police officers charged in his killing.

Hennepin County District Court Judge Peter A. Cahill recalled seven of the nine jurors that had already been seated and questioned them via Zoom on Wednesday as he weighs requests from Chauvin’s attorney to delay the case and reconsider a change-of-venue motion because of publicity related to the settlement. Cahill said he expected to issue a ruling Friday.

The seven jurors recalled were seated last week, before the Minneapolis City Council voted unanimously to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Floyd’s family.

Of the seven jurors questioned, five told Cahill they had seen news of the settlement but could remain impartial. But two — Jurors No. 20 and No. 36 — said they felt knowledge of the settlement had negatively affected their ability to guarantee Chauvin a presumption of innocence before hearing evidence in the case.

“It will impact it a lot,” Juror. No. 36, a Hispanic man in his 20s, told Cahill. “I was asked about my strong opinions against Chauvin. Clearly the city of Minneapolis has some strong opinions as well, and that just kind of confirms my opinions that I already had.”

Juror No. 20, a White man in his 30s, told the judge he had seen a headline about the civil settlement and was stunned by the amount. “That sticker price obviously shocked me and kind of swayed me a little bit,” the man said.

Cahill dismissed both jurors for cause. A third juror — a White woman known as Juror No. 44 — said she had seen headlines about the $27 million settlement, prompting her to delete her social media accounts in an effort not to be compromised.

The woman told Cahill she wasn’t surprised by the news. “I think (the city of Minneapolis) made their position clear when they decided to defund the police,” she said, an apparent reference to efforts by some Minneapolis City Council members to replace the police department with a new public safety agency.

Asked whether she could disregard what she had heard, the woman seemed to hesitate, but told the judge, “Yes, I mean, the city didn’t hear facts. They made a decision before facts.” She questioned the timing of the city’s announcement.

Cahill kept her on the jury. Afterward, he told attorneys he believed the woman could be impartial and that her hesitation reflected her previous posture when she was questioned last week. He advised the remaining jurors that it would be “probably better to avoid all news” beginning now.

The judge’s decision initially reduced the number of seated jurors to seven. But on Wednesday afternoon, the two more were approved — a Black man in his 40s identified as Juror No. 79, and a White woman in her 40s known as Juror No. 85. So far the jury includes one multiracial woman; two White men, three White women and three Black men. The court is seeking a jury of 12, with up to four alternates.

“So we’re back to where we started this morning, but it’s better than being behind,” Cahill said.

The developments came after Eric Nelson, Chauvin’s attorney, on Monday asked the judge to delay the case and to reconsider a motion to move the trial out of Minneapolis. He told the judge he was “gravely concerned” the settlement announcement had tainted the jury pool, including those already seated. He has repeatedly questioned the “suspicious timing” of the agreement and argued it made it impossible for his client to receive a fair trial.

Cahill has called the settlement announcement “concerning” and described defense complaints about the prejudicial impact on the jury as “legitimate.”

Prosecutors have downplayed the impact of the settlement on the trial. “I think that this $27 million settlement has been, frankly, overblown,” Steve Schleicher, a Minnesota special assistant attorney general and one of the prosecutors in the case, told the court Tuesday.

Schleicher argued it was still unclear whether the news had tainted the process. He said 329 people had been summoned as potential jurors in the case — leaving more than 200 left to be questioned before March 29, the tentative date for opening statements.

“We have plenty of time. We have plenty of people. We can take all the time questioning what we need to determine from an individual and whether there’s prejudice to the defendant,” Schleicher said.

Floyd was pronounced dead on May 25, 2020, after he was filmed handcuffed and restrained face down on a South Minneapolis street during a police investigation of a counterfeit $20 bill that had been allegedly passed at a local market.

Chauvin, the White police officer filmed with his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, faces charges of second- and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the Black man’s death. Three other officers charged in the case — J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas K. Lane and Tou Thao — are set to be tried separately in August.

Amid the legal intrigue about the settlement’s impact on the case, jury selection has moved at a much slower pace — in part because both prosecutors and the defense have largely drained their allotted peremptory strikes, which allow attorneys to block a potential juror without cause.

As court recessed Wednesday, Cahill said he had decided to give both sides additional strikes — leaving prosecutors with five remaining and Chauvin’s defense with six. Both sides have questioned potential jurors at greater length this week, seeking to push Cahill, who has the unlimited ability to remove parties from the case, to dismiss them for cause.

On Wednesday morning, Nelson used a strike to remove Juror No. 76, a Black man who told the court he had mixed feelings about potentially serving on a case that has stirred such intense emotions in a community that remains deeply traumatized by Floyd’s death and the civil unrest that happened afterward.

The man admitted he held strong feelings about how Black people had been treated by the Minneapolis police and in the criminal justice system. “Being a Black man in America, I experience racism on a day-to-day basis,” the man said.

But he repeatedly insisted he could he could put his own lived experience and observations aside to judge Chauvin’s case fairly and even render a verdict of not guilty if that’s what the evidence showed.

“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 decision. And so with this, maybe I’ll be in the room to know why,” the man said.

Nelson asked Cahill to dismiss the man for cause, arguing he had shown bias toward the Minneapolis police that would jeopardize Chauvin’s right to a fair trial. But Cahill refused, forcing the defense to use the 12th of its allotted 18 strikes.