All eyes will be focused on Minneapolis as jury selections begin March 8, 2021 in the trial of Derek Chauvin, former Minneapolis police officer, charged with second degree murder and second degree manslaughter for the death of George Floyd. On May 25, 2020 Chauvin snuffed out Floyd’s life with his knee held on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds as Floyd cried out nearly thirty times that he couldn’t breathe. Protests started the next day in cities across the country with tens of thousands of protesters and continued into the summer. Caught on video, the case appears to be a slam dunk for a conviction for the prosecution. As a former Baltimore prosecutor, I know the reality is a bitter pill to swallow. Juries rarely convict the few police officers who are charged with the murder or police brutality of unarmed Black people—despite video footage.
A conviction will hinge on the jurors who are selected to hear the case. Jury selections are estimated to take several weeks. A jury questionnaire filed in court in December, 2020 and sent to prospective jurors asks about their favorable and unfavorable opinions about law enforcement, the criminal justice system, police treatment of Blacks and other minorities, Black Lives Matter, defunding the police and opinions on the media, to name a few. Jurors will be questioned extensively on these topics to determine if they will be able to render a fair and impartial verdict based on evidence presented at trial. Many jurors will hold opinions about the case. Their opinions alone will not be grounds for disqualification.
The legal standard for a fair and impartial verdict is whether a juror is able to set aside personal opinions, if any, listen to the evidence in the courtroom and render a verdict based solely on the evidence heard in the courtroom. In a case which has garnered worldwide attention, the fairness of the jury is tantamount for a fair trial and a just verdict. Jurors are the final decision makers of Derek Chauvin’s fate.
As a former prosecutor, I found that white jurors are more likely to believe a white police officer’s testimony. Racial bias puts these cases in perspective because most police misconduct or murder trials for the killings of unarmed Black people usually result in mistrial or not guilty verdicts. From 2005 to 2020, only five officers were convicted of murder which involved an on duty shooting despite 110 officers charged.
In cases of police brutality captured by video, many trials end with a hung jury or an acquittal. The first known case caught on camera with a bystander’s video of police brutality on a Black man was the case of Rodney King. Almost exactly 30 years ago, on March 3, 1991, Mr. King was arrested for drunk driving in Los Angeles. After a high-speed police chase, four police officers pulled him from the vehicle and viciously beat King with their batons for over fifteen minutes as more than twelve other officers stood by and watched. At their first trial, a jury found the officers not guilty -despite video to the contrary. Years later in South Carolina on April 2015, another bystander videotaped former police officer Michael Slager as he shot Walter Scott in the back as he ran away. At Slager’s trial, a jury of eleven white people and one Black man couldn’t reach a verdict. Slager ultimately pleaded guilty and received a 20-year sentence.
Black people are 3.23 times more likely to be killed by police than white people. The dream for justice is that juries will hold police officers accountable for police brutality and murder. The world is watching us.
For more information: I was quoted in Covid, Race Tensions Test Jury Picks for Floyd’s Accused Killer– Bloomberg News
Debbie Hines, J.D. is a former Baltimore prosecutor and a former Maryland assistant attorney general for Maryland. She currently runs a private practice out of Baltimore and Washington, D.C.