Susan Elgin believed the accused man was innocent.
She was a juror in the 2015 trial of a police officer facing criminal charges in the death of Freddie Gray, a young Black man; Baltimore and the nation were closely watching the verdict months after riots swept the city. Elgin sympathized with Black people harmed by police but told her fellow jurors that the facts did not support a conviction.
"It's difficult for a juror to separate out the emotion and wanting to make a public policy statement versus deciding the issue that you're there to decide in this environment of Black Lives Matter and police accountability," Elgin said.
The stories of jurors in other high-profile police misconduct trials offer a window into the complex decisions facing the jury in former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin's murder trial in George Floyd's death. This week the full jury is set to be selected and Judge Peter Cahill will rule on final motions before opening statements begin March 29.
The weight of deciding such a widely scrutinized case drew concerns even on the first day of jury selection.
"I feel like this whole process is just going to snowball," said one potential juror, who was dismissed. "It's going to get bigger and bigger as the days go by and I don't know if I want to deal with all that comes with it: the media attention, the people outside the courthouse, the guards and stuff. It's a lot for me to take in."
It's a familiar sentiment to Robby Heckman, who recalled the trauma of serving as a juror in a police shooting case in New Mexico. Two Albuquerque officers went on trial in the 2014 killing of James Boyd, a white homeless man diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Struggle in Albuquerque
The case raised questions about how police should respond to people facing a mental health crisis — a debate that has since intensified with the "defund police" movement advocating for mental health workers to respond to some calls rather than police.
Officers responded to a call in 2014 that Boyd had been illegally camping in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains. An hourslong standoff unfolded after Boyd, 38, threatened cops with two pocket knives; a heavily armed group of officers tried to negotiate with him to put down the blades and leave. Video showed that Boyd gathered his bags to depart, but officer Keith Sandy launched a flash-bang grenade at Boyd; another officer fired a Taser. A startled Boyd displayed the knives again as a K-9 dog and its handler moved close to him, and he ignored officers' orders to get on the ground.
As Boyd turned, officers shot and killed him. Prosecutors brought second-degree murder charges against Sandy, whose bullets hit Boyd's arms, and officer Dominique Perez, who fired into Boyd's back.
Heckman, now 55 and the vice president of a cultural resource management firm, had read some news stories about the case. But he usually changed the channel when videos of police brutality played on the news. During jury selection, Heckman, who is white, said police had always treated him respectfully, "but I think they made the mistake of thinking because that was my experience that I couldn't envision that other people wouldn't be treated fairly."
The defense argued that Perez and Sandy feared Boyd was a danger and were trying to protect the K-9 officer who had gotten close to him. On the stand, Perez said he was worried when Boyd began gathering his belongings to come down with the officers because they didn't know what was in his bags and he had previously threatened to kill them.
Heckman noticed that the prosecution presented the defendants as "cowboy cops who were Clint Eastwood-style going to do whatever they wanted to do," he said. "That narrative kind of fell flat and the defense did a good job of ... picking it apart."
Still, Heckman concluded the defendants were guilty, and assumed other jurors agreed. As deliberations began, he recalled, they took a vote: Only Heckman and two other jurors supported a conviction.
"The most disturbing part was when we went into the deliberations and the other nine jurors ... could easily empathize with the officers [and] were indignant that they were even brought to trial," said Heckman. "That kind of shook me to my core."
The majority argued that Boyd was a threat because he displayed knives. He said pro-acquittal jurors kept trying to convince the three others, often referring back to jury instructions that used a standard established by the Supreme Court's 1989 Graham v. Connor case: "The 'reasonableness' of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight." (The Chauvin defense has also proposed those instructions, which Heckman and legal experts argue favors the police.)
He said some jurors grew very frustrated; one refused to watch the video anymore and said she would sit in the corner until the others decided.
"It was a difficult situation, but I'll never be convinced that the answer was using lethal force," said Heckman. "These are state agents. They are acting ostensibly on my behalf. And I want them sitting on that mountain until there is a peaceful resolution."
After two days, jurors realized they were at an impasse. Emotionally exhausted, they could hear helicopters as the city awaited a verdict. With a hung jury, the judge declared a mistrial. Prosecutors did not pursue a new case.
Rapid charges in Baltimore
Elgin, like many others, was surprised when a Baltimore prosecutor brought charges against six officers connected to Gray's death in 2015. It had been just two weeks since Gray, a young Black man, died after suffering spinal injuries in a police transport van. Protests and riots roiled the city.
She sympathized with the movement for Black lives and considered herself liberal. But as a divorce attorney, Elgin knew it took time to build cases and wondered if the state had moved too quickly.
"I think that's where we have a big dilemma in this country: is that the prosecutor's role to immediately bring charges to calm protests?" said Elgin, who is white. "And if they don't, do you have protests continuing? I don't know."
Months later, Elgin, 66, was selected as a juror in the trial of William Porter, the first officer in the case to stand trial and a Black man raised in the same poor neighborhood as Gray.
The incident began when Gray locked eyes with a police officer and took off running. Cops chased him, found a small knife in his pocket and restrained him on the sidewalk. Gray screamed and dragged his feet as officers arrested him and brought him to a transport van. Inside, Gray grew belligerent; the driver pulled over to reposition him on the floor, going against a policy that required passengers be secured with a seat belt.
Porter responded to the driver's radio call to check on Gray. He moved Gray to a bench in the van but did not respond to Gray's request for medical assistance or buckle him in. Gray went into cardiac arrest by the time the van reached the police station; most of his spinal cord was severed in an injury that prosecutors said he suffered from him shifting around in the vehicle. He died a week later.
Defense witnesses said police didn't routinely follow the seat belt policy, and Porter testified that he hadn't buckled Gray in because he was worried about exposing his gun in the process. He also claimed that he didn't get medical help because he thought Gray was exaggerating his injuries.
"I think a lot of [prosecutors'] arguments — their openings, their closings — were highly emotional," Elgin recalled. "I'm not saying that's right or wrong, I'm just saying when they had to prove the elements of the crime against officer Porter, they did not do that."
She grew convinced that Porter had not intended to hurt Gray and that he was not guilty on all charges: involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office. The jurors could not agree, and the case ended in a hung jury after three days of deliberation.
"There was a lot of pressure," said Elgin. "Some of the jurors were crying; they felt we let down our community."
Still, she believed the trial showed that the Baltimore Police Department had "huge problems," and Gray's death led to a consent decree after the U.S. Department of Justice found the agency regularly violated people's rights. As in the Albuquerque case, however, prosecutors did not pursue new charges against Porter; three other officers were acquitted and charges were dropped against the rest.
Both Elgin and Heckman describe themselves as profoundly affected by their jury service. They now follow police abuse cases in the news more closely.
Heckman joined a coalition to hold Albuquerque police accountable, and last summer he marched in protests following Floyd's death.
"Now that I was so deeply involved in this, how could I have just kind of not paid attention?" Heckman recalled asking himself of police violence.
Yet, had he thought that way before the trial for Boyd's shooting, he said, "I think it would have nullified me from being on the jury."
Maya Rao • 612-673-4210