The jury that will decide the fate of Derek Chauvin, a white former Minneapolis police officer charged in George Floyd’s death, is unusually diverse by local standards, and that’s boosting activists’ hopes for a rare conviction.
The panel of 15 includes nine people who are white and six who are Black or multiracial, according to the court. If the court follows standard practice and the alternates are the last three chosen, the 12 who deliberate would be evenly split between white people and people of colour. Opening statements are to begin Monday.
“It’s a small step in the right direction,” said Trahern Crews, an organizer and spokesperson for Black Lives Matter in Minnesota. African Americans bring “an institutional memory of the police” to jury rooms that white people and even other people of colour don’t share, he said.
Blacks underrepresented in county’s jury pool
It’s very rare to seat such a mixed jury in Minnesota, said Mary Moriarty, a former chief public defender for Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis.
That’s important because she said they’ll bring a “very different lens” to their deliberations, though she said it’s a mistake to think people of colour all view things the same.
Court records obtained by Moriarty show Black people are chronically underrepresented on juries in Hennepin County, which is 74 per cent white and 14 per cent Black.
The jury pool in 2019 — created from lists of people with driver’s licences or state ID cards, as well as voter registration lists — was 79 per cent white and eight per cent Black. People not on the lists don’t get summoned.
Scholars, courts and legal groups have increasingly advocated for greater jury diversity — not just by race, but by gender and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Experts say when jurors share the same background, they’re less likely to question their own biases and preconceptions heading into deliberations.
They also say jurors from different backgrounds may evaluate witnesses differently, including how much weight to give their testimony.
Chauvin charged with murder, manslaughter
Derek Chauvin is charged with murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020.
Floyd, a Black man, was declared dead after Chauvin, who is white, pressed his knee against his neck for about nine minutes while he was handcuffed and pleading that he couldn’t breathe.
The widely seen video set off street protests in Minneapolis, some violent, that spread across the U.S. and the world.
It’s rare for police officers to stand trial for fatal shootings. When they do, recent history suggests a more diverse jury increases the odds for conviction, although the record is mixed.
In Minnesota in 2017, the jury that acquitted suburban police officer Jeronimo Yanez, a Latino man, of second-degree manslaughter in the 2016 shooting death of Philando Castile, a Black man, included 10 white people and two Black people.
The jury that convicted Black Minneapolis officer Mohamed Noor, a Somali American, in 2019 of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the shooting death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, a white Australian woman, included six people of colour, including two Filipino men, an Ethiopian man and a Pakistani woman.
Elsewhere, a Texas jury in 2019 convicted white Dallas police officer Amber Guyger in the shooting death of Botham Jean, a Black man in his own home. That jury consisted largely of women and people of colour. Observers said the makeup of the jury was a key factor in Guyger’s conviction.
‘It could have been me’
During questioning for jury selection in Chauvin’s trial, some people in the pool were strikingly direct about how the colour of their skin affected their view of Floyd’s death.
A Black man in his 30s who immigrated to America more than 14 years ago said he talked with his wife about the case. “We talked about how it could have been me, or anyone else,” he said.
Another Black man in his 30s, asked about his response to a jury questionnaire on the extent of discrimination in America, said it goes “well beyond what the media can even report.”
“Black lives just want to be treated as equals and not killed or treated in an aggressive manner simply because they are Black,” he said.
Both men were selected to be on the jury.
Candidates faced questions about race, policing, protests
Attorneys on both sides used questions about Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter to probe deeper attitudes on race and policing.
Jurors were also asked whether the protests and violence following Floyd’s death had a positive or negative effect on the community, and whether they supported defunding the Minneapolis Police Department.
One juror, a white woman in her 50s, related an anecdote that she said helped her understand white privilege: a conversation she had with a Black co-worker who described how her Black son could be in much greater danger if pulled over by police than the white juror’s son would be.
If George Floyd had been white, the facts would be undisputed and justice would be swift. We expect the same for George.
– Ben Crump, Floyd family attorney
Moriarty, the former public defender, pointed out that several potential jurors were suburbanites who said they had never experienced discrimination or known anyone who had. Their interactions with police had been positive.
That underscored the need to get the perspective of African Americans into the jury room, she said.
When the jury was complete, Floyd family attorney Ben Crump — who negotiated a $27 million US settlement with the city — issued a statement that made no comment on its racial makeup, but highlighted the polarizing issue of race in Floyd’s death.
“This is not a hard case,” Crump said. “If George Floyd had been white, the facts would be undisputed and justice would be swift. We expect the same for George.”
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