In the end, they all agreed, every one of them: Chauvin broke the law. After the verdicts were read aloud, all 12 were asked by the judge to affirm that they agreed with the verdicts. Each did.
“Juror number 55, are these your true and correct verdicts?” the judge asked. “Yes,” replied the White woman whose hobby is riding motorcycles.
“Juror number 79, are these your true and correct verdicts?” the judge asked. “Yes,” replied a Black immigrant who has lived in the area for 20 years.
“Juror number 85, are these your true and correct verdicts?” the judge asked. “Yes,” replied the multiracial woman who described herself as a “working mom and wife.”
“Are these your verdicts, so say you one, so say you all?” the judge asked. “Yes,” all of the jurors replied.
Shortly before Chauvin was led away in handcuffs, the judge expressed his gratitude to those who’d evaluated the case.
“I have to thank you on behalf of the state of Minnesota,” he said, “for not only jury service, but heavy-duty jury service.”
That appreciation was probably the high-water mark of the jurors’ experience. As soon as they left the courthouse, their service was cast in another light by many Americans, particularly those in the conservative media.
“The jurors in the Derek Chauvin trial came to a unanimous and unequivocal verdict this afternoon,” Tucker Carlson said on Fox News a few hours later: "'Please don’t hurt us.’” The implication, which he went on to articulate, was that the jurors reached their decision solely out of concern for personal or national repercussions if they failed to do so. Others made claims in a similar vein, including Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.).
Over and over, conservative pundits on Fox and on social media offered assessments suggesting that the jurors acted not on the evidence and in accordance with their oaths but, wittingly or not, were part of an effort to railroad Chauvin. At times, those claims lingered remarkably close to insights about the ways in which the criminal justice system is unbalanced, as when Ben Shapiro tweeted that an “enormous public pressure campaign was crucial to achieving the Chauvin conviction [w]hich is typically not how criminal justice systems are supposed to work.” It is, in fact, true that the application of public scrutiny should not be the way it becomes possible to obtain a criminal conviction against someone videotaped kneeling on another person’s neck.
If you have never served on a jury, it’s important to understand that reaching a verdict is not simply a function of “did this person do it.” It is, instead, a matter of fitting the evidence presented in court — and no other evidence — to the boundaries of the laws under which the defendant has been charged.
The Minnesota juror handbook explains what happens when the trial concludes:
“When testimony is completed, the judge will review the laws that apply to the case. This is important information because it provides you with direction about how you must apply the law to the facts. Please listen carefully. Remember that you are governed by the law as the judge explains it to you. Do not attempt to change it or ignore it, even if you disagree with the law. You and the judge are under oath to apply the laws of the state accurately and fairly.”
If the law mandates that someone can be found guilty of second-degree unintentional murder only if they “cause the death of a human being, without intent to effect the death of any person, while committing or attempting to commit a felony offense” (as Minnesota’s law does), the jury has to decide whether the evidence presented in court proves beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant caused the death and that he or she was committing a felony offense at the time. Finding Person A guilty of murder is not simply a question of whether Person A led to Person B’s death. It’s a question of whether the evidence available is enough to meet all parts of the legal standard to the satisfaction of all 12 jurors. That’s a very different bar.
It’s also why President Biden’s comments before the verdict were not helpful in a different way.
“I’m praying the verdict is the right verdict,” he said Tuesday afternoon. “I think it’s overwhelming in my view.”
Sure. But if the jurors, acting in good faith, determined that the evidence presented didn’t meet the necessary legal standards, their decision would be cast as the “wrong verdict” by the president of the United States, regardless of the fact that the question they were evaluating (“does this evidence fit this mandate”) was different than the question Biden and others were evaluating (“did Chauvin kill Floyd”). The public evidence may be overwhelming to meet the latter, but the courtroom evidence may not have been overwhelming to meet the former.
There is a qualitative difference between Biden’s pre-verdict statement and the post-verdict response from conservatives. The former was ill-advised. The latter is an attempt to rationalize a verdict that was at odds with both the specific efforts to question the evidence against Chauvin (something Carlson had repeatedly explored) and the broader effort to take a demonstrated side with police against the perceived opponents of law enforcement.
For some commentators, it’s probably the case that they sincerely didn’t understand how Chauvin could be found guilty. Fox News spent far less time discussing the trial and carried relatively little of it. The bubble that tends to surround current events in the conservative media wrapped itself around this, too. Weeks had been spent bolstering the idea that no reasonable jury could convict Chauvin, so, once it did, there had to be a rationale for the jury doing so. That identified rationale was that, once again, the political left was somehow to blame.
I’m going to put a fine point on this, because this subject is important to me. In 2009, I spent six months serving on a jury in a high-profile case in New York and have a good sense both of how jury service works and how the media presentation of events can deviate from reality. (I am aware of the irony in that sentence, of course.)
Serving on a jury is an important part of being a citizen in the United States. It is often unrewarding and, on rare occasions, distinctly fraught. It is a way for a community to evaluate where one of its members may or may not have broken the laws passed by the community’s representatives. It is civic duty in one of its purest and most universal forms.
Jurors and juries make mistakes, but jury service is critical, and anything that disinclines people from that service is an erosion of a fundamental part of the United States. To actively undermine a jury’s decision based on little more than partisanship compounds that damage.
Twelve Minnesotans gave up several weeks to evaluate a critical question under the national spotlight. This is citizenship.