MINNEAPOLIS — In his effort to find an impartial jury, the lead defense attorney in the murder trial of former Minneapolis police Derek Chauvin has spent the past two weeks questioning potential jurors about their views on racism, discrimination, policing of communities of color and Black Lives Matter.
But on Thursday, Eric Nelson told a prospective juror that the trial is "not about race."
The response to George Floyd's death suggests many people believe otherwise. For weeks, thousands of people in all 50 states protested against systemic racism and police brutality, spurred by the sight of a Black man dying under the knee of a white police officer after centuries of white supremacist violence against Black people.
"We’re at an interesting point in society where people are telling us what is and what is not about race. I’m not sure that the defense attorney in this case gets to make that decision," said Samuel R. Sommers, a social psychology professor at Tufts University who studies the impact of race on the legal system. "It's a tragedy, but it's become a racially charged instance as well because of what else is going on our society."
Chauvin is not charged with crimes related to racial bias. But experts say the issue of race is at play not only in Floyd's death but in the courtroom during jury selection. And it will likely have an impact on deliberations and the verdict.
"Nothing magical happens to individuals who show up for jury duty that makes them somehow immune to racial biases," Sommers said.
In this screen grab from video, defense attorney Eric Nelson speaks as Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill presides over jury selection in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on Wednesday, March 17, 2021 at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis, Minn.
Jurors who believe race affects the legal system are 'absolutely right'
Nelson's comment bears similarities to previous law enforcement denials that systemic racism is a factor in recent high-profile police killings of Black people.
In October, Louisville Police Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly, one of the officers who fired weapons in a failed drug raid that took the life of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black medical worker in Kentucky, said the incident was “not a race thing like people try to make it to be.”
When asked why a 17-year-old white teenager accused of killing two protesters and injuring a third in Kenosha, Wisconsin, was arrested but Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, was shot several times in the back, former Attorney General William Barr told CNN in September he doesn't believe there are "two justice systems."
"I think the narrative that the police are on some, you know, epidemic of shooting unarmed Black men is simply a false narrative and also the narrative that that's based on race," Barr told CNN. "The fact of the matter is very rare for an unarmed African American to be shot by a white police officer."
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And on Tuesday, after eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were killed in three shootings at Atlanta-area spas before police arrested and charged a white man, officials investigating the case said it was too soon to call the incident a hate crime. "We are just not there as of yet," Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant said in a news conference.
Many people of color and others disagreed, viewing it as a crescendo of a year-long wave of racist violence – particularly after a recent spike in anti-Asian violence that began during the COVID-19 pandemic and which many believe was fomented by the rhetoric of the Donald Trump administration.
Opinion: If Derek Chauvin is acquitted, the three other cases could collapse
Multiple studies and the lived experience of many Black people, in particular, suggest systemic racism is a factor in police killings.
An analysis of data from the Washington Post published in 2019 found that while Black Americans comprise just 13% of the U.S. population, they account for 36% of unarmed police shooting victims. Black Americans are 3.23 times more likely than white Americans to be killed by police, according to a study of nearly 5,500 police-related deaths between 2013 and 2017 published by Harvard researchers in June 2020.
"The data are very clear. Any prospective juror who says, 'Yes, I believe race has the potential to influence how individuals are treated,' is absolutely right," said Sommers. "If that’s going to be grounds for removing someone from the jury, that's a problem."
The jury's racial makeup will likely will be more varied than Minnesota
Thirteen jurors, five men and eight women, have been selected so far for Chauvin's trial. Seven of the jurors identify as white, two as multiracial and four as Black, according to the court. The court plans to seat at least one more juror.
The racial makeup of the jury likely will be more varied than the Minnesota as a whole, Hennepin County, or Minneapolis. According to mid-2019 U.S. Census data, Hennepin County was 74.2% white, Minneapolis was 63.6% white and Minnesota was 83.8% white.
Months ago, the court sent a 13-page questionnaire to people in the jury pool asking their opinions on various subjects, including: whether police officers are more likely to use force against people of color, whether people of color receive equal treatment in the criminal justice system, whether police in their community make them feel safe, and how they feel about the Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter movements.
Attorneys for the defense and prosecution have prodded potential jurors to expand on their answers and explain their reasoning. That has spurred some lengthy conversations about their experiences with police and discrimination.
More:30 years after Rodney King, Derek Chauvin trial is 'like reliving history' for lawmakers, lawyers, activists and others who were there
On Thursday afternoon, one man said he didn’t believe Black and white people are treated equally in the criminal justice system. Nelson asked if the man believed an incident in which police stop a person of color is more likely to end "tragically." The man said yes.
He also said he would not believe a police officer's testimony. The judge excused him from the jury.
Another juror, the executive director of a youth organization, wrote in his questionnaire that he “somewhat disagreed” police treat Black people and white people equally and that he “strongly agreed” media reports on police brutality against racial minorities are only the tip of the iceberg.
He said he thought he could still serve as an impartial juror. The defense used a peremptory challenge against him.
If attorneys want to eliminate a juror, the judge must approve their reason, or lawyers can use what’s known as a “peremptory challenge” to cut someone without providing a reason.
A veteran who appeared to be Black told the court he experiences racism on a daily basis. On his questionnaire, he “strongly agreed” Black people and white people aren’t equally treated by the criminal justice system and “strongly agreed” Minneapolis Police Department is more likely to use force with Black people.
He told the court the fairness of the criminal justice system “depends on your colors.”
“If you’re Black ... we get the things where you have to go to jail,” he said.
He said he could set aside his opinions to serve on the jury. The defense used a peremptory strike against him.
Andrew Gordon, deputy director for community legal services at the Legal Rights Center in Minnesota, said the experiences that juror described are inextricably connected to him being a Black man. "To strike him for those reasons is tantamount to striking him because he is Black," he said.
"You are eliminating opportunities to have individuals on that jury who have an appreciation of race and law enforcement interactions with race that could help inform truth-seeking," Gordon said.
Jurors who react strongly to George Floyd video are 'systematically struck'
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