A judge said Friday he won’t delay or move the trial of a former Minneapolis police officer charged in George Floyd’s death over concerns that a $27 million settlement for Floyd’s family could taint the jury pool, but he’ll allow limited evidence from a 2019 arrest.
Jury selection in the trial of Derek Chauvin will stretch into a third week after attorneys seated just one additional juror Friday. The 13th juror picked is a woman who said she’d seen only clips of the video of Floyd’s arrest and needs to learn more about what happened beforehand.
Late Friday, the court said up to 16 jurors would be chosen. An earlier court order in November had said as many as four alternates would be picked, but once Chauvin’s trial was separated from the trial of three other former officers charged in Floyd’s death, the court had said only two alternates would be chosen for this case.
Seven jurors had been picked last week when the Minneapolis City Council announced it had unanimously approved the massive payout to settle a civil rights lawsuit over Floyd’s death. Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, subsequently sought to halt or move the trial, saying the settlement timing was deeply disturbing and jeopardized Chauvin’s chance for a fair trial. Chauvin is charged with murder and manslaughter.
But Cahill, who called the timing “unfortunate,” said he believed a delay would do nothing to stem the problem of pretrial publicity, and that there’s no place in Minnesota untouched by that publicity.
The judge handed the defence a victory by ruling that the jury can hear evidence from Floyd’s 2019 arrest, but only information possibly pertaining to the cause of his death in 2020. He acknowledged several similarities between the two encounters, including that Floyd swallowed drugs after police confronted him.
The judge previously said the earlier arrest could not be admitted, but he reconsidered after drugs were found in January in a second search of the police SUV that the four officers attempted to put Floyd in last year. The defence argues that Floyd’s drug use contributed to his death.
Cahill said he’d allow medical evidence of Floyd’s physical reactions, such as his dangerously high blood pressure when he was examined by a paramedic in 2019, and a short clip of an officer’s body camera video. He said Floyd’s “emotional behaviour,” such as calling out to his mother, won’t be admitted.
But Cahill said he doesn’t plan to allow the testimony of a forensic psychiatrist for the prosecution. Floyd said he had claustrophobia and resisted getting into the squad car before the fatal encounter last year, and the state wanted Dr. Sarah Vinson to testify that his actions were consistent with a normal person experiencing severe stress, as opposed to faking or resisting arrest.
The judge said he would reconsider allowing her as a rebuttal witness if the defence somehow opens the door, but allowing her to testify could usher in all of the evidence from Floyd’s 2019 arrest.
“Clearly there is a cause of death issue here, and it is highly contested,” Cahill said, noting that both arrests involved Floyd’s cardiac problems and ingesting drugs.
The county medical examiner classified Floyd’s death as a homicide in an initial summary that said he “had a cardiopulmonary arrest while being restrained by police.” Floyd was declared dead at a hospital 2.5 miles (4 kilometres) from where he was restrained.
The full report said he died of “cardiopulmonary arrest, complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression.” A summary report listed fentanyl intoxication and recent methamphetamine use under “other significant conditions” but not under “cause of death.”
The earlier arrest lends more weight to the defence plan to argue that Floyd put his life in danger by swallowing drugs again and that, combined with his health problems, caused his death, said Ted Sampsell-Jones, a professor at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law.
“Jurors are not supposed to be influenced by that sort of thing, but they are human,” Sampsell-Jones said.
Floyd, who was Black, was declared dead May 25 after Chauvin, who is white, pressed his knee on his neck for about nine minutes while he was handcuffed and pleading that he couldn’t breathe. Floyd’s death, captured on a widely seen bystander video, set off weeks of sometimes violent protests across the country and led to a national reckoning on racial justice.
The 13 jurors seated through Friday are split by race: Seven are white, four are Black and two are multiracial, according to the court.
It’s unclear which jurors would be alternates. Legal experts said it’s almost always the last people chosen, but the court said that wouldn’t necessarily be the case for Chauvin’s jury. Spokesman Kyle Christopherson said alternates could be chosen “many different ways,” but declined to give details.
“You can see in this case why (Cahill) might want to do something different, like draw numbers from a hat,” said Sampsell-Jones. He said the judge needs all jurors to pay attention and wouldn’t want anyone to learn they are alternates through the media.
The woman picked Friday — a white woman in her 50s — said she’s never seen police officers use more force with Black people or minorities than with white people, and that there’s nothing to fear from police if people co-operate and comply with commands. She stopped short of saying an unco-operative person deserves to be harmed.
“If you’re not listening to what the commands are, obviously something else needs to happen to resolve the situation,” she said of officers’ actions. “I don’t know how far the steps need to go.”
Several potential jurors were dismissed Friday, including a college student who attended protests that called for Chauvin and the other officers to be fired and charged, and one man who said he’d have a hard time believing testimony of Minneapolis police officers, because he believes they might try to cover up something.
Opening statements are March 29 if the jury is complete.