MINNEAPOLIS (NewsNation Now) — Jury selection for a former Minneapolis police officer charged in George Floyd’s death was halted before it began Monday by the state’s effort to add a third-degree murder charge.
As hundreds of protesters gathered outside the courthouse to call for Derek Chauvin’s conviction, Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill said he does not have jurisdiction to rule on whether the third-degree murder charge should be reinstated against the former officer while the issue is being appealed. But he said prosecutors’ arguments that the whole case would be impacted was “tenuous.”
Cahill initially ruled that jury selection would begin as scheduled on Monday, but prosecutors said they would ask the Court of Appeals to intervene, which could put the case on hold, so the judge sent the potential jurors home for the day.
Cahill said he intends to start jury selection Tuesday, unless the Court of Appeals tells him otherwise, and may reduce jurors selected from the standard 16 to 14 for coronavirus safety concerns.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed to dismiss 16 of the first 50 jurors they reviewed “for cause” based on their answers to a lengthy questionnaire. These dismissals weren’t debated in court, but can happen for a host of reasons, such as views that indicate a juror can’t be impartial.
While the third-degree murder charge remains up in the air, both sides agreed to several other motions on day one of the trial. They agreed to witness sequestration, not allowing witnesses to watch the trial before or after they testify.
Chauvin, 44, is charged with second-degree murder, which carries a sentence of up to 40 years in prison, and manslaughter.
Legal experts say reinstating the third-degree murder charge would improve the odds of getting a conviction. Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, said Monday he would ask the state Supreme Court to review a Court of Appeals decision that ordered Cahill to reconsider the charge.
For the unintentional second-degree murder charge, prosecutors have to prove Chauvin’s conduct was a “substantial causal factor” in Floyd’s death, and that Chauvin was committing felony assault at the time. For third-degree murder, they must prove that Chauvin’s actions caused Floyd’s death, and that his actions were reckless and without regard for human life.
Jury selection is expected to take at least three weeks, as prosecutors and defense attorneys try to weed out people who may be biased against them.
“You don’t want jurors who are completely blank slates, because that would mean they’re not in tune at all with the world,” Susan Gaertner, a former prosecutor, said. “But what you want is jurors who can set aside opinions that have formed prior to walking into the courtroom and give both sides a fair hearing.”
Floyd, who is black, was declared dead May 25 after Chauvin, who is white, pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck for about nine minutes, holding his position even after Floyd went limp as he was handcuffed and lying on his stomach on the street.
Chauvin and three other officers were fired. The others face an August trial on aiding and abetting charges.
Floyd’s death sparked protests and civil unrest in Minneapolis and across the U.S. over police brutality, at points turning violent.
Picking a jury is expected to take at least three weeks, as prosecutors and defense attorneys try to weed out people who may be biased. Twelve Hennepin County residents will be picked after extensive questioning about their views on police and the justice system.
Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, argued that pretrial publicity of the case and the subsequent violent unrest in Minneapolis would make it impossible to find an impartial jury in Hennepin County. But Judge Cahill said last year that moving the trial probably wouldn’t cure the problem of a potentially tainted jury pool because “no corner of the State of Minnesota” has been shielded from pretrial publicity.
The potential jurors — who must be at least 18, U.S. citizens and residents of Hennepin County — were sent detailed 16-page questionnaires to determine how much they have heard about the case and whether they’ve formed any opinions. Besides biographical and demographic information, jurors were asked about prior contacts with police, whether they have protested against police brutality and whether they believe the justice system is fair.
Some of the questions were also specific, such as how often a potential juror has watched the bystander video of Floyd’s arrest, what do they think of Black Lives Matter or whether they carried a sign at a protest and what that sign said.
Unlike typical jury selection proceedings, this jury pool will be questioned one by one instead of in a group. The judge, defense attorney and prosecutors will all get to ask questions. The defense can object to up to 15 potential jurors without giving a reason; prosecutors can block up to nine with no reason given. The other side can object to these so-called peremptory challenges if they believe the sole reason for disqualifying a juror is race or gender.
Both sides can also argue to dismiss an unlimited number of jurors “for cause,” meaning they must provide a reason why they believe that juror shouldn’t serve. Those situations can get into some detailed machinations, Mike Brandt, a local defense attorney, said, and it’s up to the judge to decide whether a juror stays or goes.
Jury selection will end after 14 people are picked – 12 jurors who will deliberate the case and two alternates who won’t be part of deliberations unless needed. The jurors will be escorted to the courthouse daily and sequestered during deliberations. Their names will be kept confidential until further order of the court.
Chauvin, who was released from jail on a $1 million bond last October, appeared in court Monday at the Hennepin County Government Center, a tower in downtown Minneapolis now ringed with fencing and concrete barricades for fear of disruption by protesters.
He’s dressed in a navy blue suit and tie, a white shirt and a black face mask.
The families of Chauvin and Floyd have each been allocated a single seat inside the courtroom, due to the attendance restrictions to maintain social distancing. Seats for jurors have been spaced out. Like others in the courtroom, jurors will be required to wear masks.
Small groups of protesters gathered Monday by barricades at an adjoining park, some arriving with bouquets of flowers and signs.
Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey said last week that the city is preparing for peaceful protests. The city announced plans to fund a network of community groups that can patrol neighborhoods and work on the ground during “periods of heightened tension,” including the trials of the officers accused in Floyd’s death. The Minneapolis Police Department has also conducted de-escalation training ahead of the trial.
Read Hennepin County’s latest set of rules for trial management below:
The Associated Press contributed to this report.