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The Hard Task Ahead for Jurors in the Derek Chauvin Trial

April 8, 2021, 8:00 AM

Derek Chauvin is innocent until proven guilty. The Sixth Amendment ensures his right to an impartial jury. But how much impartiality can there be when the world watched as the former police officer forcefully held his knee on George Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes despite cries for help from Floyd and eyewitnesses. What we saw on that video was the ending of a life in real time. The video was simultaneously an affront to basic human instincts, and a reminder of the frailty of the human body.

Not since photographs of the bruised and battered body of 14-year-old Emmett Till lying in his casket has the world had to grapple with that type of collective trauma. And even then, Till’s body was the aftermath of a brutal, horrific murder.

But playing a video and then immediately presuming guilt is not what our criminal justice system affords. Due process requires that prosecutors convincingly prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt to an impartial jury. In asking jurors to remain impartial as they begin the task of weighing the evidence both against and for Chauvin, are we asking them to leave their humanity at the courtroom doors?

This case lays bare the quandary for jurors who have affirmed under oath to weigh all evidence according to law—not emotions, instincts, or basic human decency. Maybe the focus shouldn’t be on jurors’ impartiality, but on whether the law fully encapsulates basic human decency as a prerequisite.

Opening Statements

Both sides opened their cases with the age-old strategies of simplicity versus complication. Both attorneys took their seats with the ever-present possibility remaining that jurors would fall somewhere in the middle, being unable to reach a unanimous decision—a deadlocked jury.

The prosecution urged jurors toward the simple task of connecting the dots leading to conviction. The defense in its opening statement identified the many ways in which the reconstruction of too many moving parts was confusing and difficult and should lead to an acquittal.

Prosecutor Jerry Blackwell painted a picture of a straightforward case. He played the video and gave jurors permission to “believe their eyes.”

The goal was to convince them of the direct link between what they saw and what the evidence will prove—that Chauvin’s actions looked like a murder on the video because it was. In laying out its evidence, the prosecution took great care to remind jurors that Chauvin had every opportunity to avoid the deadly result, but chose to keep his knee on the victim’s neck.

Prosecutors characterized Chauvin as a rogue officer to distance him from the police force collectively. It’s important to the prosecution’s case that the focus remain on Chauvin’s actions in this instance versus the larger societal issues of policing Blacks.

In his opening statement, defense attorney Eric Nelson countered the prosecution’s simplicity narrative by indicating that with over “50,000 pieces of evidence” jurors had anything but an easy task ahead.

He focused on Chauvin’s police restraint training in a bid to persuade jurors that he was operating within proper police protocols—pointing towards Floyd’s underlying heart disease, his prior use of fentanyl, and the “adrenaline flowing through his body” as alternative causes of death. He implied to jurors that in an attempt to subdue a suspect, Chauvin was up against an almost insurmountable task because of Floyd’s size and level of aggression.

Nelson danced around harmful tropes about large Black men as presumptively angry and dangerous. This strategy, although historically effective, may ultimately backfire with this diverse jury panel.

Witness Testimony and What’s Next

Jurors are now hearing testimony from eyewitnesses. Each description of the day’s events is harrowing. Testimony thus far has been a retelling of a chaotic scene full of trauma, fear, rage, and pain.

Multiple witnesses reiterate their attempts to bargain and plead with Chauvin to get off of Floyd, check his pulse, allow the medics to assist. However, every account ends with Chauvin’s dogged refusal to let up.

Uncannily, the eyewitnesses included two individuals with direct expertise in martial arts and medical emergency services. Witness Donald Williams, a trained martial arts practitioner, explained the specifics of Chauvin’s body movements in concert with the video. His description of Chauvin flexing his foot muscles to shift more weight onto Floyd’s neck likely was impactful for jurors.

Another eyewitness, Genevieve Hanson, a Minneapolis firefighter with emergency medical technician experience, was off-duty while at the scene. She begged officers to let her intervene and help Floyd. She testified that she had the knowledge and experience to provide medical attention but was not permitted to do so.

Both witnesses admitted to feeling angry, sentiments that the defense attorney latched on to in his cross-examination. However, characterizing witnesses who just saw a man die as “angry” is unlikely to yield any meaningful support from jurors.

The eyewitness accounts provided context and depth to the video that shaped the world last summer. Their testimony has been powerful and elicited strong emotional reactions. But more importantly for the prosecution, was the corroboration provided by the testimony.

Each witness built upon the prior with vivid descriptions of the scene, combined with affirmative statements of Chauvin’s repeated chances to do the humane thing, to take his knee off of the neck of a dying man.

The prosecution has built a strong foundation for their case consistent with the necessary elements to support a conviction for second-degree murder. It’s too early to make any definitive calls. But the jurors in this case must remember that impartiality and humanity can co-exist.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Tiffany Jeffers is an associate professor of law and legal practice at Georgetown University Law Center. Previously, she served as an assistant state’s attorney in Baltimore County, Md.

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