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Chauvin trial: Jury selection continues; opening statements draw near

By Riham Feshir, Brandt Williams, Jon Collins and Matt Sepic, Minnesota Public Radio News

A flurry of key decisions Friday has set a path for Derek Chauvin’s trial to start on time and stay in place. A jury of 12 plus two alternates is within reach Monday, although the court may end up choosing as many as 16 jurors to serve.

Chauvin, an ex-Minneapolis police officer, faces charges of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the killing of George Floyd last May while in police custody.

Floyd’s cause of death will be a central and “highly contested” issue at trial, Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill told the court Friday. Bystander video showed Chauvin with his knee pressed against Floyd’s neck for about nine minutes as the man lay face down and handcuffed, pleading that he couldn’t breathe.

The defense theory is that Floyd’s death “is due in part to drug toxicity and not to positional asphyxia or other causes,” Cahill said. “The state and its experts opine otherwise, saying that it is positional asphyxia and the restraint that was placed on George Floyd” by Chauvin.

Resisting arrest, or a panic attack?

Cahill agreed to allow some body camera footage from Floyd’s May 6, 2019, arrest that shows Floyd’s physical reaction to officers as they take him into custody.

“The whole point here is we have medical evidence on what happens when Mr. Floyd is faced with virtually the same situation — confrontation by police, at gunpoint,” the judge said Friday.

A paramedic who attended to Floyd that day can testify that Floyd’s blood pressure during the 2019 arrest was so high he was at risk of a stroke or heart attack.

The judge, however, will not allow a state witness to testify as to Floyd’s emotional reactions, which the defense says are very similar to his behavior during his fatal encounter with police on May 25, 2020.

Prosecutors had said they wanted to refute the notion that Floyd was resisting arrest last May and offer a forensic psychiatrist’s testimony to explain that Floyd couldn’t comply with officers’ orders to get into the squad car because he was suffering from anxiety or a panic attack.

Cahill ruled Friday that’s not admissible unless the defense says something to open the door to that line of inquiry.

The judge cautioned that if the psychiatrist testimony was allowed, ”then the entire 2019 arrest would be in as well, since the defense would have a right to confront her opinion by playing the entire videotape of Mr. Floyd’s emotional reaction” that day.

‘Everybody just stop talking about it’

The challenges of finding impartial jurors in an era of 24-hour news coverage and social media were made clear last week as the defense and prosecution queried prospective jurors. The $27 million wrongful death settlement between the city of Minneapolis and the Floyd family continues to loom large over Chauvin’s criminal trial.

Two jurors who’d been chosen for the jury before the settlement were dismissed on Wednesday after acknowledging to Cahill that news of the payout had influenced their views.

Cahill, who’s expressed his unhappiness over Minneapolis publicizing the settlement during jury selection for Chauvin’s criminal trial, dismissed defense arguments to move or postpone the trial in response.

He acknowledged Friday that the high-profile nature of this case would be inescapable no matter if it were postponed or moved.

“I don’t think there’s any place in the state of Minnesota that has not been subjected to extreme amounts of publicity on this case,“ Cahill told the court, explaining his decision to keep the trial in Minneapolis.

Those concerns resurfaced on Thursday when Minneapolis officials called a press conference and turned aside talk that the settlement announcement had affected the trial.

“I’ve asked Minneapolis to stop talking about it. They keep talking about it. We keep talking about it. Everybody just stop talking about it,” he told the court Thursday.

Race a constant companion in jury selection

Cahill is protecting the identities of people in the jury pool. There are cameras in the courtroom, but they are not allowed to show the potential jurors, who are identified only by number, not name.

Among the 13 seated, there are three Black men, including two who are immigrants; one Black woman; two women who identify as multiracial; two white men; and five white women. The court said late Friday it will choose up to 16 jurors.

Having a diverse jury of impartial jurors is important because it brings different perspectives into the room, said Paul Butler, a Georgetown University law professor.

“The court has also said that in race-related cases, it’s important to have jurors of color, and particularly African American jurors, because their presence on the jury strengthens public confidence in the system, and respect for the rule of law,” Butler said.

Race remains an underlying constant during jury selection.

A Black man was dismissed last week from the jury pool after describing past experiences with the Minneapolis Police Department.

When asked why he might want to serve on this jury, he said: “You see a lot of Black people getting killed and no one is being held accountable for it. And you wonder why or what were the decisions, and for this maybe I’ll be in the room to know why.”

Defense attorney Eric Nelson pressed the potential juror on why he wrote in his questionnaire that he strongly disagreed with the statement that the media exaggerates discrimination.

“Being a Black man in America, I experience racism on a day-to-day basis,” the juror said, insisting he could be a fair and impartial juror. “My opinion doesn’t really matter, it’s whether I can do what the judge and you guys ask me to.”

Nelson found the juror’s bias toward Minneapolis police troubling. He also pointed to the man’s answers, which included the word “murder,” when he talked about his knowledge of the case.

The prosecution, however, said the juror was simply reflecting on his lived experience as a Black man.

MPR News reporter Nina Moini contributed to this report.