A White executive who has discussed privilege with her Black co-worker. A Black immigrant who watched a video of George Floyd’s death, then told his wife, “It could have been me.” A multiracial woman who sees police officers as humans who sometimes “make mistakes.”
These are some of the dozen jurors who decided whether former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin broke the law when he knelt on George Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes while the Black man gasped, “I can’t breathe.”
Two weeks of jury selection in Chauvin’s murder trial whittled a pool of more than 300 potential jurors down to 12 with three alternates. One of the alternates, Juror 131, was released because of pandemic distancing rules at the start of the trial, and the other two, Jurors 96 and 118, were released on Monday ahead of jury deliberations. The final jury included one Black woman, two multiracial women, two White men, three Black men and four White women. Eight were in their 40s or younger.
The jurors were charged with deciding one of the highest-profile cases in recent memory, which began last month in a downtown courtroom a few miles from where Floyd was filmed facedown on a Minneapolis street. Their decision will reverberate across the country, setting off renewed debates about race, policing and accountability.
“What’s happening in this trial is not just a statement or a judgment on the criminal process in Hennepin County, Minnesota,” said Irene Oritseweyinmi Joe, a law professor at University of California at Davis. “There are people all over the nation, all over the world, that are looking at this to get a sense of how much they can believe in our system of justice.”
Because the case is so high-profile, the jurors were cloaked in anonymity, shielded from public view and shuttled to and from Courtroom 1856 under armed guard.
Under court order, very little information about the jurors has been made public, besides their race, gender, age range and audio of their interviews during jury selection. The juror descriptions included here have been pulled from this publicly available information.
Juror #9 — Multiracial woman, 20s
She grew up in a small town in northern Minnesota and has an uncle who is a police officer in Brainerd, Minn. She was “excited” to get a summons in this case, which “everyone’s heard about, everyone’s talked about and everyone’s going to talk about long after the trial is over.”
Juror #92 — White woman, 40s
She feels White people are favored by the justice system but strongly disagrees with defunding the police. She said media coverage of Chauvin depicted him as “an aggressive cop with tax problems,” which drew a laugh from the former officer’s attorney.
Juror #27 — Black man, 30s
An immigrant who came to the United States more than a decade ago, he once lived near where Floyd was killed. The man said a friend showed him the video of Floyd’s death; afterward, he told his wife: “It could have been me.”
Choosing a jury in a high-profile case presents an unusual challenge, according to attorneys and legal experts.
Prospective jurors are already loaded with information about what happened, which can make it hard to find people who appear open to hearing the facts in court and changing their minds.
“Unless you’re living under a rock, there’s no one in Minneapolis, and probably no one in the United States, who’s not familiar with George Floyd’s death,” said Daniel S. Medwed, a law professor at Northeastern University. “You want people who have heard of the case but are willing to put aside any preexisting biases or any initial opinions about guilt or innocence.”
But knowledge of the case is not a dealbreaker, experts said. “You’re looking for a fair and impartial jury, not an oblivious jury,” Medwed said.
In Chauvin’s case, the jury selection process began months before the potential jurors started answering questions in court; the jury pool received an extensive 16-page questionnaire in the mail in December.
Potential jurors were asked if they had seen the video of Floyd’s death and, if so, how many times. They were quizzed on their media consumption and asked whether they marched in protests after Floyd died, and, if so, whether they carried signs.
Although that level of scrutiny isn’t typical in most jury trials, experts say, preemptive questionnaires have been used in prominent cases, including the Boston Marathon bombing case and the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooting trial, in an attempt to weed people out.
Juror #91 — Black woman, 60s
A grandmother originally from South Minneapolis, she says she has a relative on the city’s police force, but they aren’t close. She expressed a positive view of the Black Lives Matter movement, saying: “I am Black. My life matters.”
Juror #44 — White woman, 50s
An executive at a nonprofit health-care advocacy group and a single mother to two teenage boys, the juror said she discussed White privilege with a Black co-worker. The co-worker’s son is the same age as the juror’s older teenager. “But my White son, if he gets pulled over, doesn’t have to have fear.”
Juror #52 — Black man, 30s
He has not seen the video of Floyd’s death in full and wonders why the other officers on the scene did not stop Chauvin. He expressed mixed views on police, saying he once saw them “body slam then mace an individual simply because they did not obey an order quick enough.” But he knows other police officers from his gym and called them “great guys.”
Jury selection for the Chauvin trial began in early March. One at a time, potential jurors were quizzed by the judge and attorneys.
Their answers were highlighted and dissected, with each side looking for evidence of bias. Some jurors were questioned for less than 10 minutes, others closer to an hour. Each side was allotted peremptory challenges, allowing them to dismiss jurors without cause. Chauvin’s defense used 14 of its 18 strikes. Prosecutors were given 10 and used eight. Hennepin County District Court Judge Peter A. Cahill, who oversaw the case, had the unlimited ability to dismiss jurors for cause.
One woman said during jury selection that she had marched and carried a sign. A short time later, Chauvin’s defense struck her from the jury.
These prospective jurors were asked probing questions about their experiences with police and their views on the justice system, including whether they supported defunding the police, had ever seen police use excessive force or believed that officers treat White and Black people equally.
Jurors were pressed on their views of Chauvin, with most saying they had a “negative” view of the former officer based on the video they had seen of Floyd’s death. But Eric J. Nelson, Chauvin’s attorney, looked for those who said they didn’t know all the facts of the case and could put their opinions aside. “You agree there are two sides to every story?” Nelson asked one woman. “Would you be able to keep your mind open until you hear both sides?”
Attorneys also interrogated jurors about their views of Floyd, with prosecutors trying to gauge whether someone could be empathetic to his behavior at the scene. Jurors were asked if they personally knew anyone who had abused drugs. Special prosecutor Steve Schleicher also asked several jurors if they believed someone truly unable to breathe would be able to speak.
Picking the jury “is probably the most critical part of the case,” said Stew Mathews, an attorney who has represented officers in high-profile cases, including the Samuel DuBose shooting in Cincinnati and Breonna Taylor’s death in Louisville.
“It’s a gut feeling,” Mathews said. “You talk with the people … and those who provide responses that you feel are favorable to your position or, at the very worst, neutral, are people that you’re willing to put on your jury.”
Juror #79 — Black man, 40s
An immigrant who has been in the Twin Cities for about 20 years, he now lives in the suburbs of Minneapolis. He said his view of Chauvin was “neutral” and wanted to hear more of his side before making a judgment.
Juror #118 — White woman, 20s
A newlywed social worker, she asked about Chauvin: “Was that his training to do that?” She thinks things in policing should be changed but strongly opposes cutting police funding.
Juror #131 — White man, 20s
A married accountant, he questioned why four police officers responded to a 911 call about a counterfeit $20. He also was critical of professional athletes who knelt during the national anthem.
Chauvin’s trial unfolded under a microscope. And it was visible, in large part, to anyone who wanted to watch.
In a nod to both the coronavirus pandemic and the heightened public interest, the judge limited seating in the courtroom but allowed the proceedings to be televised — the first time a Minnesota judge has authorized cameras to show a full criminal trial. Jurors were blocked from the cameras’ view, though audio of their remarks during jury selection was broadcast online.
During jury selection, Cahill told prospective jurors that at some point, their names would be released, when he decides it is safe to do so. Several jurors told him they were concerned about safety, pointing to the potential of civil unrest or anger over the verdict.
“Someone who might be completely comfortable sitting on most cases in a jury trial may be completely uncomfortable because of the public attention,” said Carmen Ortiz, who, as U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, oversaw the Boston Marathon bombing prosecution.
And while their faces wouldn’t be seen, the demographics of the jury would be scrutinized, particularly because this case involves issues of race and policing. Prosecutors have struggled to convict police officers charged in high-profile killings in the past, and the racial makeup of the juries have been criticized and highlighted.
“Having the jury be diverse will be really important in people’s sense of the legitimacy of the process,” said Joe, the law professor. “It’s important to think through who the jurors are, what their beliefs are, what their experiences are and the degree to which they’ve excluded jurors who have seen or believe there is systemic racial bias in the system.”
Juror #2 — White man, 20s
The first juror seated said he never watched the video of Floyd’s death, but he saw a video still of Chauvin on top of him. He described himself as willing to change his mind on issues.
Juror #96 — White woman, 50s
She said the video might not show the entirety of what happened, calling it “a snippet.” She also said that, in her view, Chauvin “took a different role in the situation than the other officers” who were there.
Juror #85 — Multiracial woman, 40s
A self-described “working mom and wife,” she described police officers as humans who “can make mistakes.” She also agreed that people who don’t listen to the police have themselves to blame for negative outcomes, saying: “You respect police and do what they ask.”
After both sides rested in the Chauvin case, the jury took its instructions back to a secluded room to deliberate. How these jurors handle disagreements was raised during the selection process.
One juror was even asked to promise not to use her own experiences in making a decision. The juror is a registered nurse who had previously worked with intensive care and cardiac patients. This background might have proved relevant, as Chauvin’s defense had argued that Floyd’s poor health and drug use, not the police officer’s use of force, was what killed him.
During questioning, the nurse said she could put her training aside to be impartial. But selecting an expert for the panel stood out to some of the legal experts interviewed for this article.
“When you’re picking a jury, you do want to be cautious about putting people on the jury that other jurors might defer to, that they might defer to their experience in trying to figure out an answer to whatever question they have,” said Joe, the law professor.
Juror #55 — White woman, 50s
A single mother of two who rides motorcycles in her spare time, she described being scared by the unrest that gripped Minneapolis last year. She also mentioned seeing officers confront an unarmed White teenager last summer, calling it “harassment” and saying that when she tried to intervene, an officer ordered her to stay back.
Juror #19 — White man, 30s
A corporate auditor, he said a “friend of a friend” works for the Minneapolis police but that they had not discussed the case. If there were conflicts in the jury room, he said he would reexamine his own views, but “if I still felt that my viewpoint was the one that I believed in, I think I’d stand by that viewpoint.”
Juror #89 — White woman, 50s
A registered nurse who works with ventilated patients, her medical training was highlighted during the questioning process.
Even with such a spotlight on this case, the jurors’ deliberations were conducted in private. Everything other than the outcome will remain secret unless the jurors decide to talk to the public or attorneys involved after things wrap up.
It’s the nature of jury trials, where much of the case unfolds in public view, particularly things such as how evidence is presented, testimony given and instructions delivered to jurors, said Medwed, the professor.
“Transparency is the coin of the realm in the trial,” Medwed said, “but transparency has no currency in the deliberation room.”
Bailey reported from Minneapolis.