Jury selection started Tuesday in the murder trial of former Minneapolis, Minnesota, police officer Derek Chauvin, who is accused of killing a Black man, George Floyd, in an encounter that triggered months of protests throughout the world against police abuse of minorities.
The 44-year-old Chauvin, who is white, faces second-degree murder and manslaughter charges in the death last May of the 46-year-old Floyd. He died in police custody after Chauvin pinned a knee on his neck for more than nine minutes as Floyd pleaded that he could not breathe.
Trial Judge Peter Cahill started the jury selection even though it remained unclear whether Chauvin would also face a third-degree murder charge. Prosecutors are asking the Minnesota Court of Appeals to put the trial on hold until the issue of adding the extra count is resolved.
But the appellate court did not immediately rule on that request. Cahill said, "Unless the Court of Appeals tells me otherwise, we're going to keep moving” with the jury selection.
It could take as long as three weeks to pick 12 jurors and up to four alternates, with opening arguments in the case not expected to start before March 29. With coronavirus restrictions in place, the jurors will be seated two meters apart from each other in the courtroom.
Already, prospective jurors were mailed a 16-page questionnaire about the case, asking them about their views on policing, the criminal justice system and such advocacy movements as Black Lives Matter. The would-be jurors were asked to disclose everything they know about the widely publicized case, Floyd’s death, his nationally televised funeral and protests against police in the weeks that followed.
The questionnaire also asked prospective jurors whether they participated in the protests, and if they carried signs, what their messages said.
During the jury selection process, prosecutors and defense attorney Eric Nelson will closely question the jurors about their views of the case.
Cahill, a Hennepin County District Court judge, has sharply limited the number of people allowed in the courtroom for the trial, but because of the wide interest in the case, he has given Court TV the right to televise it, the first time a criminal trial in Minnesota will be broadcast in its entirety.
Dozens of witnesses are expected to testify in the case, although it is not clear whether Chauvin, a 19-year veteran of the Minneapolis Police Department before he was fired after the May 25 incident, will take the witness stand in his defense.
The trial of three other dismissed Minneapolis police officers who were on the scene as Chauvin pinned down Floyd is not scheduled until August and could be canceled, and charges dropped, if Chauvin is acquitted.
Testimony in Chauvin’s case could last through most of April, with the jury not starting to decide the case until late in the month or early May.
Prosecutors will attempt to show that Chauvin used unreasonable restraint in holding down Floyd, who was suspected by a storekeeper of trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill, and that Chauvin’s actions contributed directly to Floyd’s death. If convicted, Chauvin could face years in prison. The other three former officers in the case are facing charges of aiding and abetting manslaughter and murder.
Defense attorney Nelson has said that Chauvin is not guilty because he acted in self-defense in restraining Floyd and used reasonable and authorized force as a police officer.
In addition, Nelson is set to argue that Floyd died from drugs found in his body and other underlying health problems, including heart disease.
Hennepin County Medical Examiner Andrew Baker formally declared Floyd’s death a homicide, saying that neck compression was a key factor. But the medical examiner also listed heart disease, fentanyl intoxication, recent methamphetamine use and Floyd’s bout with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, as other "significant conditions.”
Baker is likely to be a key witness at the trial, as could Darnella Frazier, the 17-year-old who filmed Chauvin and the other officers as they restrained Floyd. Prosecutors have listed more than 300 possible witnesses, while the defense has listed 200 people it might call to testify.
Heavy security is in place around the courthouse in Minneapolis. Dozens of community activists have staged marches and peaceful protests in the lead-up to the trial, with vigils planned outside the courthouse during the proceedings.
About 2,000 National Guard troops have been called in to join at least 1,100 law enforcement officers from throughout the Minneapolis area to guard the courthouse and deter any unrest.