The jury selection process in former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin's murder trial is putting new focus on how race and bias are handled in the state's justice system.
The issue arose most prominently last week with the dismissal of potential juror No. 76, a Black man who was dismissed by Chauvin's defense attorneys after he shared his opinion that Black people such as himself don't receive equal treatment by Minneapolis police and in the justice system overall.
"As a Black man, you see a lot of Black people get killed and no one's held accountable for it and you wonder why or what was the decisions, and so with this, maybe I'll be in the room to know why," he told the court.
The man, whose identity was not disclosed, talked about how he used to live near the area where Chauvin had been filmed kneeling on the neck of George Floyd and that the community felt antagonized by Minneapolis police. After somebody was shot or went to jail nearby, he said, police were known to drive through the neighborhood blasting the song "Another One Bites the Dust."
While the Army veteran wasn't shy to share that racism affected him every day, he attested he could put his opinions aside to judge the case on the facts presented.
Still, the potential juror was dismissed with defense attorney Eric Nelson reasoning that the man was biased against the Minneapolis Police Department.
For some closely watching the case, the juror's dismissal showed how hard it can be for those with negative experiences of policing, especially people of color, to be allowed to provide critical voices in cases where policing is being questioned.
During jury selection, potential jurors are questioned individually. Judge Peter Cahill is allowed to dismiss prospective jurors. The attorneys can also motion for the judge to dismiss jurors "for cause" if they are perceived to show bias, as well as use "peremptory" strikes without providing a specific reason, though the lawyers can't dismiss jurors due to race. Like any attorney, Nelson is compelled to work in the best interest of his client by trying to make sure that jurors can be open-minded about Chauvin's case.
Nelson used a peremptory strike against the juror after the judge declined to remove him for cause. Cahill noted that the man said that despite his experience he was able to be fair.
Among the 14 jurors seated so far, six are people of color, with four identifying as Black and two identifying as multiracial, with a diverse array of viewpoints. One Black man in his 30s who immigrated to the United States more than a decade ago told the court he recalled saying to himself after George Floyd died: "It could have been anybody, it could have been you." Another Black man said he believed that discrimination is real and that he didn't feel Chauvin "had any intention of harming anybody, but somebody did die."
A 15th juror, who has yet to be confirmed, will be excused next week unless needed.
"For me, the pivotal question was whether the judge would allow Number 76 to be excused from the Chauvin jury because of his lived experience as a Black man," former Hennepin County chief public defender Mary Moriarty wrote in a column for the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, the oldest Black-owned newspaper in Minnesota. "For a moment, I had hope. Unfortunately, the answer was yes."
While the law is not supposed to allow a prospective juror to be removed because of his or her race, Moriarty argued the "lived experiences" that juror No. 76 described weren't race-neutral, meaning they had to do with his experiences as a Black man.
Toussaint Morrison, a community organizer and director who left his job last year at Twin Cities Public Television in the wake of Floyd's death, said the potential juror's experiences weren't that different from what other Black men may experience on a regular basis.
"His experiences are valid and you can't take that away from him," Morrison said. "Would that be the experience of other Black men that might have gone to that court? Yeah. … Is it my experience? Absolutely. Have I been pulled over jogging? Yes. Have I been pulled over on a bike that was mine and that I owned? Yes."
Race matters, and it can't be erased from the courtroom, said Morrison, who recently spoke about jury selection at a rally outside the Hennepin County Courthouse.
Juror No. 76's dismissal hasn't been the only part of jury selection that has offended some activists. Protesters took issue with the dismissal of another potential juror, a woman originally from Mexico who Judge Cahill said might have lacked some sophistication to understand certain legal terms.
University of Minnesota law professor Jon Lee said that in cases such as the Chauvin trial there is a very thin line between what could be perceived as a race-motivated strike against a juror and what isn't.
"It is nearly impossible to try to disentangle race and one's experiences as a person of color with this case," said Lee, whose expertise includes judicial behavior and legal ethics. "That said … we need to impanel a jury that would be able to bring their experiences to bear in hearing this case."
Lee said it is extremely difficult to prove that an opposing attorney has struck a juror on the basis of race using what is called a Batson challenge, named after a 1986 U.S. Supreme Court case Batson v. Kentucky during which the court ruled that peremptory strikes cannot be used to dismiss jurors because of their race. After a judge has been convinced that a strike could have been used because of a juror's race, the attorney who issued the strike has to present a "race-neutral" reason for dismissing the juror.
"The defense attorney is going to argue that it is not on an account of race but rather because of his prior experiences with the police department and what he has observed," Lee said. "But that is necessarily tied up in the fact that he is a Black man."
Washington and California have rules making it easier to mount a challenge to prevent race-based dismissals, Lee said. It takes large, publicized cases like the Chauvin trial to put more pressure on lawmakers and courts to improve the processes, Lee said.
Though the public might think attorneys are trying to find impartial jurors, the truth of the matter is that it is an adversarial process and they want to find jurors who will be more sympathetic to their side of the case, said Samuel Sommers, a psychology professor and director of the Racial Equity & Diversity Lab at Tufts University in Massachusetts. It is impossible for people to not have some biases, he added.
At first look, the jury selected for the Chauvin trial appears to be racially diverse, but that doesn't mean that everything has been perfect, he said.
In his research, Sommers has found that more diverse juries tend to be more thorough and weigh different types of evidence more carefully than in more racially homogenous juries. A diverse jury is also important for the judicial system to be perceived to be legitimate to the general public, he said.
"The beauty of the jury system is every single person on that jury has a say here. They have to be unanimous," Sommers said. "That's not always the case in life when you are of a minority perspective or group that you have that kind of power."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Nicole Norfleet • 612-673-4495