The jury chosen for the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, charged with the murder of George Floyd, is notable because it is significantly less white than Minneapolis itself.
Among the 12 jurors and three alternates selected for the panel are three Black men, one Black woman, and two jurors who identify as multiracial. If none of the three alternates — all of them white — are needed in the deliberation room, 50% of the panel that will vote on Chauvin’s fate will be Black or multiracial.
Hennepin County, where the trial is being held, is only 17 percent Black or multiracial, while it is 74% white.
The jury’s racial makeup will assuage some of the concerns that activists and others had expressed as jury selection got underway two weeks ago. An insufficiently diverse jury, they believed, would undercut people’s faith in the legitimacy of a trial seen as a critical moment in the racial justice movement that George Floyd’s killing helped reenergize last spring.
Even so, the jury’s basic racial breakdown glosses over some important nuance.
Two of the Black men on the jury are not African Americans, but rather Black immigrants. During questioning they expressed the kind of moderate views on policing and race relations that defense attorney Eric Nelson generally found acceptable as he considered which potential jurors to strike and which to allow.
None of the Black jurors ultimately chosen for the panel spoke extensively about personal experiences with racism nor about having had overtly negative interactions with police. Several said they had a healthy respect for law enforcement.
That was in contrast to one potential juror — an African American man and former soldier — who said he had lived in the neighborhood where George Floyd was killed and said police in the area were known to antagonize residents. The man, identified only by his juror number, 76, also spoke of experiencing racism on a daily basis, and recounted seeing Black acquaintances sentenced to prison for crimes while white ones often got a “slap on the wrist.”
Despite those experiences, Juror 76 assured the judge and attorneys that he could put his opinions aside and decide the case against Chauvin fairly and based only on the evidence. He said he could foresee himself casting a not-guilty vote if the evidence required it. He had also served on a jury before.
Defense Attorney Nelson struck him nonetheless, citing the juror’s bias against the Minneapolis police.
That decision elicited concern from Steve Schleicher, the lawyer leading jury selection for the prosecution, who disagreed that the juror’s comments revealed anti-police bias. Instead, he said, they were a simple reflection of the juror’s daily lived experience as a Black man.
The fate of Juror 76 highlighted a tension that often exists in jury selection – especially in cases in which issues of race loom large. The experiences that come with being Black in America are often enough to get jurors struck from a case, said Sonali Chakravarti, a Wesleyan University professor who has studied the role of race in jury selection.
In recent years she’s paid special attention to how professed support for the Black Lives Matter movement has gotten many Black people struck from juries. That did not seem to be the case during jury selection for the Chauvin trial. Several jurors who expressed at least some support for the movement were seated on the jury — a sign of progress, Chakravarti said.
On one hand, that the defense would strike people with negative views of police is understandable, given Nelson’s responsibility to seat a jury favorable to his client. The prosecution in the Chauvin case also struck white jurors who expressed police friendly views, or who had negative opinions of Black Lives Matter or of the protests that followed George Floyd’s killing.
But Chakravarti said that given history, it is appropriate to apply greater scrutiny when Black jurors are struck.
“We’ve seen that in this country, Black jurors are struck at a higher rate than other jurors. And that is a really big problem,” she said.
Given Hennepin County’s overwhelmingly white jury pool, that four Black and two multi-racial people made it onto the Chauvin jury is a considerable feat, even if their expressed views on race and police are more conservative than those of countless African Americans who’ve marched for racial justice in the last year.
In a column, Mary Moriarty, the former chief public defender for Minneapolis, said she had watched the questioning of Juror 76 and though she expected him to be struck, had hoped he wouldn’t be.
She said his fate was a reminder that the jury selection process should be reformed to ensure more African Americans have a fair shot to serve on juries.
“We should start,” she wrote, “by recognizing that their lived experiences with racism are not justification to excuse them.”