Jury selection finally got underway on Tuesday in the high-profile trial of the white police officer accused of killing George Floyd, a Black man whose death laid bare racial wounds in the United States and sparked protests across the globe.
Former Minneapolis Police Department officer Derek Chauvin is facing charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter in connection with Floyd’s May 25 death, which was captured by bystanders on smartphone video.
Jury selection had been scheduled to begin on Monday but was delayed for a day as prosecutors sought to reinstate a third-degree murder charge against the 44-year-old Chauvin.
A Minnesota court of appeals has not yet issued its ruling but Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill, clearly impatient to get the trial moving, decided to go ahead with jury selection anyway.
After hours of detailed questioning by the defense team and prosecutors, two jurors were selected on Tuesday for the 12-member panel that will decide Chauvin’s fate.
Second-degree murder carries a maximum sentence of 40 years in prison.
The jury selection process is expected to take about three weeks with opening arguments in the trial expected to begin around March 29.
Chauvin was dismissed from the police force after he was captured on video with his knee on the neck of a pleading, gasping Floyd for nearly nine minutes.
Chauvin, who has been free on bail, appeared in court on Tuesday wearing a light grey suit and a black face mask at a desk surrounded by plexiglass as a Covid-19 precaution.
He occasionally jotted down notes on a yellow legal pad and conferred with his lawyers as prospective jurors were being questioned.
Lawyers for both sides face the difficult task of finding jurors who have not already made up their minds about the widely publicized case.
One potential juror, a Hispanic woman with halting English, was dismissed by the defense team using one their 15 peremptory challenges.
The woman had referred to Floyd’s “unjust” death on a 16-page questionnaire that jurors had been asked to fill out.
– ‘Awesome’ –
Another potential juror, a white man in his 20s or 30s who said he was a chemist, was selected to be a juror.
Asked by the judge if he could be “fair and impartial,” the man, identified only as Juror No. 2, replied “Yes.”
He told the defense team that he had never watched the viral video of Chauvin with his knee on Floyd’s neck.
Also selected was a young woman who appeared to be biracial who said she would be “super-excited” to serve on the jury and would not be influenced by the fact her uncle is a police officer.
“Awesome,” she said when told she’d been selected.
Several potential jurors expressed concerns for their safety because of the high-profile nature of the trial.
“This is an important case, lots of emotion tied up in it,” said one juror who was dismissed by prosecutors, a man in his 50s or 60s.
The identities of the jurors will not be revealed until after the trial.
Three other police officers involved in Floyd’s arrest — Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao — face lesser charges and will be tried separately.
All four officers were fired by the Minneapolis Police Department.
Floyd’s arrest was prompted by accusations that he had tried to pass a counterfeit $20 bill in a nearby store.
Chauvin’s case is being watched as a potential marker of change in a country that recently elected its first Black vice president but has seen police officers historically escape punishment for abusive acts.
Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, social distancing rules mean seating will be limited at the trial, with the Floyd and Chauvin families given only one seat a day.
The trial is being livestreamed.
Lawyers for Chauvin, a 19-year veteran of the force, have argued that he was following police procedure and claim the 46-year-old Floyd died of an overdose of the drug fentanyl.
“Mr. Chauvin acted according to MPD policy, his training and within his duties,” according to his lawyer, Eric Nelson. “He did exactly as he was trained to do.”
An autopsy did find traces of fentanyl in Floyd’s system but said the cause of death was “neck compression.”
A verdict is not expected until late April.