MINNEAPOLIS (NewsNation Now) — A Minnesota judge began seating jurors on Tuesday in the trial of a former Minneapolis police officer charged in George Floyd’s death, even though a looming appellate ruling could halt the case and delay it for weeks or even months as the state tries to add a third-degree murder count.
Judge Peter Cahill, of the Hennepin County District Court, did so over the objections of state prosecutors, who say the trial should not begin until a higher court resolves how many criminal charges Chauvin should face.
Prosecutors asked the Court of Appeals on Monday, originally scheduled to be the first day of jury selection, to order Cahill to delay the trial, until the issue of adding the third-degree murder count is resolved.
“There is no need for this kind of uncertainty in any case, let alone a case of this magnitude,” the prosecutors from the Minnesota attorney general’s office wrote in their petition to the appeals court.
It was not clear whether the higher court would intervene, and Cahill said he believed he had jurisdiction to proceed unless he was ordered otherwise.
Cahill said Monday that he that he intends to keep the trial on track until he’s told to stop.
“Unless the Court of Appeals tells me otherwise, we’re going to keep moving,” he said. Jury selection started Tuesday, a day later than scheduled.
Cahill called in six potential jurors. They entered a courtroom one by one and although they had never met Chauvin in person, they said they knew exactly who he was: the police officer who kept his knee on Floyd’s neck during a deadly arrest last year that caused a worldwide outcry.
Nearly all told the court they had seen the video of the May 25 arrest recorded on a bystander’s phone showing Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, begging for his life, which spread inescapably across the internet and other media.
Many conceded they had already formed a negative opinion of Chauvin, who was dismissed from the police force.
“That’s the only thing I’ve ever seen of this person: that video,” Juror No. 9, a woman who appeared to be mixed race in her 20s or 30s, told the court, trying to describe her views on Chauvin, who is white. “It just makes you sad. Nobody wants to see someone die, whether it’s his fault or not.”
Still, she was “super excited” to receive the jury summons, a feeling that only grew after she realized that it would be for one of the most high-stakes cases seen in the United States in years.
After assuring Judge Peter Cahill of Hennepin County district court that she would be fair and impartial she became the second of three jurors seated on the first day of jury selection.
“Awesome!” she replied to the judge.
Chauvin, released from jail last October on a $1 million bond, stood when he was introduced to potential jurors by his lawyer. Dressed in a gray suit, dark tie and black face mask, Chauvin filled pages of a yellow legal pad with notes.
There was a commonplace belief that parts of the American criminal justice system are racist, as seen in the nervous 19-year-old man who said when questioned by Chauvin’s lawyer Eric Nelson that he distrusts the police and recalled his father being racially profiled during a traffic stop. The judge dismissed him.
Despite the judge promising jurors anonymity for the duration of the trial, some feared becoming a target or said they were unnerved by the rings of barbed-wire fencing and concrete barricades around the tower in downtown Minneapolis in which the trial is being held.
One potential juror, a self-described Christian family man, wondered if his house might be spray-painted or his windows smashed if his name got out. The judge dismissed him, too.
Chauvin’s lawyers also used up two of their 15 peremptory challenges by which they can reject a juror without citing a reason, while prosecutors from the Minnesota attorney general’s office used up one of their nine.
But after a second Hispanic person was rejected by the defense, prosecutors complained that the defense was illegally excluding jurors on the basis of race, which the defense denied. The judge concluded there was insufficient evidence to overturn their dismissal.
The court had mailed prospective jurors an unusually detailed 16-page questionnaire last year asking them what they know about Floyd’s death, and asking for their opinions on the Black Lives Matter movement, which took hold globally following Floyd’s death in police custody.
The second potential juror called in, a white man working as a chemist in an environmental testing laboratory, said he “somewhat disagreed” with the assertion that Minneapolis police generally use disproportionate force against Black people.
He said he supported Black Lives Matter and that he understood it to mean that “all lives matter equally.”
Cahill told him soon after that he would be the first juror to be seated.
Chauvin’s lawyers say he properly followed the training he was given by the Minneapolis police department. The medical examiner ruled that Floyd’s death was a homicide caused partly by police restraint holds, but noted also Floyd had recently ingested the opioid fentanyl. Chauvin’s lawyers contend that an overdose was the main cause of death.
One potential juror, a financial auditor, said he had seen on the news that Floyd had used “hard” drugs and had been convicted of crimes in the past but would not let that affect his weighing evidence presented at the trial. Floyd had been convicted of cocaine possession and robbery in the past.
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, 44, is charged with second-degree murder, which carries a sentence of up to 40 years in prison, and manslaughter.
The unintentional second-degree murder charge requires prosecutors to prove that Chauvin’s conduct was a “substantial causal factor” in Floyd’s death and that Chauvin was committing felony assault at the time. The third-degree murder charge would require them to prove that Chauvin caused Floyd’s death through a dangerous act without regard for human life.
The Court of Appeals last week ordered Cahill to consider reinstating a third-degree murder charge that he had dismissed. Legal experts say reinstating the 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 the issue.
Floyd’s death sparked protests and civil unrest in Minneapolis and across the U.S. over police brutality, at points turning violent.
Chauvin and three other officers involved in the May 25 incident were fired. The others face an August trial on aiding and abetting charges. Chauvin was released from jail on a $1 million bond last October.
Hundreds of people gathered outside the courthouse as proceedings began Monday.
Inside the courtroom, Chauvin followed the proceedings attentively, making notes on a legal pad.
Bridgett Floyd, George Floyd’s sister, sat in the seat allocated to Floyd’s family. Afterward, Bridgett Floyd said the family was glad the trial had finally arrived and is “praying for justice.”
“I sat in the courthouse today and looked at the officer who took my brother’s life,” she said. “That officer took a great man, a great father, a great brother, a great uncle.”
On Monday, 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. The dismissals weren’t debated in court, but such dismissals can be for a host of reasons, such as views that indicate a juror can’t be impartial.
Jury selection could take at least three weeks and will end when 14 jurors are picked — 12 who will deliberate and two alternates. The potential jurors — who must be at least 18, U.S. citizens and residents of Hennepin County — were sent 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.
Jurors will be questioned individually. The judge, defense attorney and prosecutors can all ask questions. In addition to both sides being able to argue for an unlimited number of “for cause” dismissals, the defense can object to up to 15 potential jurors without giving a reason; prosecutors can block up to nine without providing a reason. Either side can object to these peremptory challenges if they believe the sole reason for disqualifying a juror is race or gender.
Even if a juror says they have had a negative interaction with the police or hold negative views about Black Lives Matter, the key will be trying to find out whether they can put those past experiences or opinions aside and be fair, said Mike Brandt, a local defense attorney.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.