From jury selection to murder charges, experts look at the Derek Chauvin trial

In this image taken from video, defense attorney Eric Nelson, left, and defendant Derek Chauvin, former Minneapolis police officer,  are shown during pretrial motions on Thursday, March 11, at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis, Minn. Photo: The Associated Press
By Robert C. Jones Jr.

In this image taken from video, defense attorney Eric Nelson, left, and defendant Derek Chauvin, former Minneapolis police officer,  are shown during pretrial motions on Thursday, March 11, at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis, Minn. Photo: The Associated Press

From jury selection to murder charges, experts look at the Derek Chauvin trial

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
With the legal proceedings of the former Minneapolis police officer underway, George Floyd’s death is front and center once again. And University of Miami criminology scholars examine aspects of the case.

It was a year like no other. A deadly pandemic raged out of control, pushing health care systems to the brink. Two candidates with entirely different visions for the nation waged a heated battle for the White House. And through it all, millions of people, angered over the killing of an unarmed Black male while in police custody, took to the streets in protest. 

Today, with much-needed COVID-19 vaccines being administered around the world and a new president residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the George Floyd case is once again at the forefront, as one of four former Minneapolis police officers charged in the man’s death stands trial. 

Jury selection continues this week in the case against Derek Chauvin, who pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes last Memorial Day, while two other officers pinned Floyd down, and a third prevented witnesses from intervening—all captured on video viewed around the world. 

Of the four, Chauvin faces the most serious charges: second-degree unintentional murder, second-degree manslaughter, and a third-degree murder charge reinstated by a judge last week. 

The recently reinstated charge is a victory for the prosecution, which now has a better chance of winning a murder conviction rather than a manslaughter verdict, said Scott Sundby, professor of law and Dean’s Distinguished Scholar at the University of Miami School of Law. 

“The defense, in fighting to keep the third-degree murder charge out, is likely worried that the jury will compromise on a middle charge if they can’t decide between the other two charges. Without the third-degree murder charge, if the jury isn’t unanimous on the second-degree murder charge, it could at most convict him of the manslaughter charge,” Sundby explained. “Not surprisingly, the possible penalties increase with the seriousness of each charge, although given that Chauvin does not have a prior criminal record, he likely would end up with a similar sentence whether convicted of second- or third-degree murder.” 

The trial, which is expected to last for weeks, will thrust attention on other aspects of the legal system—the jury selection process, among them. In a case that has drawn a plethora of media attention, it is highly unlikely to seat a jury that hasn’t heard about or seen the video of the Floyd incident. 

“The key in high-profile cases like this is to understand that we do not interpret ‘impartial’ as meaning ‘unaware of what happened,’ or else we would be limited to people living off the grid,” Sundby said. “Instead, what you will see the judges and attorneys trying to do is identify individuals who are open to the arguments of both sides—for example, they believe that police are entitled to use force in certain situations, but that the use of force can reach a level where it is no longer justified—and have not already decided on which side of the spectrum Chauvin’s actions fall. As the jury selection that has occurred so far shows, however, finding such jurors after they already have seen the video is easier said than done.” 

Protests over police brutality erupted across the nation in the wake of Floyd’s death. Now, the courthouse at which Chauvin is being tried has been heavily fortified, and Court TV, the cable network that rose to prominence during the O.J. Simpson murder case, will offer extensive coverage of the Chauvin trial, marking the first time in Minnesota that a judge has authorized cameras to show a full criminal trial. Could such circumstances impact the jury’s decision? 

“Ideally, of course, we want jurors to focus on the facts and law before them and not be concerned with the perceived message that a verdict will send or its consequences.” Sundby said. “Jury trials are intended to be about an individual’s guilt under the law and not a broader commentary on societal issues, even if the juror knows that a verdict is likely to be viewed in a broader societal context. That said, as much as the legal system tries to insulate the juror’s decision from such outside pressures, it is hard to see how such concerns would not cross a juror’s mind, especially given all of the continual reminders in this case. Jurors are human, after all.” 

Much of Sundby’s research has been conducted as part of the Capital Jury Project, a study funded by the National Science Foundation that is designed to understand how juries decide whether or not to impose the death penalty. As part of that project, Sundby interviewed several jurors who served on capital cases in which substantial community outrage over a murder existed. In those cases, “jurors worked hard to try and block out community sentiment when coming to their decision,” he explained. 

“I, of course, have no way of knowing whether such concerns still played an unconscious role in their decision, but they certainly were aware of not wanting community sentiment to enter their decision and, in several cases, did arrive at a verdict that would not have been ‘popular’ with the community as a whole,” Sundby added. 

Chauvin’s trial comes 30 years after the Rodney King incident, in which Los Angeles police officers pounded the Black motorist repeatedly with batons while a resident of a nearby apartment recorded the altercation with a video camera. 

Alex Piquero, professor and chair of the Department of Sociology in the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences and a leading authority on criminology and criminal justice, sees several parallels between the two cases—namely, the use of video to capture the altercations, the protests that subsequently ensued, and the fact that both incidents involved officers from different racial and ethnic groups. 

But much has also changed since the King beating and trial. “With the advent of cellphone video technology, more visuals of police use of excessive and deadly force have been captured for the world to see,” Piquero said. “These have led to movements, culminating in Black Lives Matter, that bring together individuals spanning all demographic profiles, focused on a single cause—to highlight the need for racial and social justice.” 

The videos and protests, according to Piquero, have led to greater scrutiny of police and have helped usher in changes in police operations, deployment, and training. “Whether the change is sweeping enough or fast enough for people is an entirely different issue as sometimes legislative action takes a significant amount of time, if ever, for change to be instituted,” he said. “But there is no doubt, evidenced by changes in training and discipline as well as legislative bills introduced and passed throughout the U.S., that some steps are being taken toward addressing policing behavior.” 

However the trial ends, the result is sure to spur heated emotions on both sides. “I fully anticipate that at the culmination of the trial, there will be protests of some sort. The questions will be: who will be protesting, why will they be protesting, and what manner the protests will take?” Piquero said. “Undoubtedly, we have the fortune to live in a country where we can legally and peacefully protest and those individuals who choose to do so should have their rights protected. At the same time, city officials in Minneapolis as well as throughout the United States will be on high alert to ensure that public safety of all citizens is protected.” 

Sundby and Piquero provide their input on other aspects of the Chauvin case. 

How does the third-degree murder charge differ from the other two charges—second-degree unintentional murder and second-degree manslaughter—Chauvin faces, and what must prosecutors do to win a conviction on third-degree murder? 

Sundby: It is a bit complicated. In a nutshell, though, the second-degree charge requires the prosecution to prove that Floyd died while Chauvin was committing the felony of assault, while third-degree murder does not require the felony but instead focuses on whether the accused “perpetrat[ed] an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind.” Manslaughter also focuses on the idea that the accused created a risk of death (but the risk need only be “unreasonable” compared to “eminently dangerous” for third-degree murder) and that he was aware he was creating the risk (but not to such an extent that he had the “depraved mind” required for third-degree murder). 

Could the city of Minneapolis’ decision to pay a $27 million civil settlement to the family of George Floyd affect the jury’s decision? 

Piquero: The settlement could absolutely affect a jury in finding a guilty verdict. I say this not as to whether or not Chauvin is guilty, but rather that in most of these cases, the civil trial, or city settlements, always come after the criminal trial. In this case, it came beforehand, which is quite telling. I have never seen a settlement beforehand, certainly not this large, even after the criminal phase of a trial. This most certainly could affect a jury, and I suspect that the defense would make the case as such, but we shall see over the next few days.