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Chauvin trial puts spotlight on trials for police

Chauvin trial puts spotlight on trials for police
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All eyes have been on Minneapolis this week for the beginning of the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged with killing George Floyd.

Not only does the case put a spotlight on the nation’s reckoning with policing and systemic racism, it also tops the list of high-profile trials of recent memory.

Floyd, 46, was pronounced dead at an area hospital on May 25 after Chauvin knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, even after he was unconscious. Graphic cellphone footage showed Floyd pleading with Chauvin multiple times, saying that he couldn’t breathe before becoming unresponsive.

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Floyd’s death was a catalyst for a summer dominated by nationwide Black Lives Matter protests and unrest. 

Chauvin is facing three criminal counts: Third-degree murder, second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. The charges carry maximum sentences of 25 years, 40 years and 10 years, respectively, under Minnesota law.

Here are the top things to understand while following along with the proceedings.

Selecting the jury

On paper, juries are supposed to be impartial, though in practice it is decidedly difficult to set up such a panel, especially in high-profile cases.

“It's really hard to find people that know nothing about the protests this summer and about George Floyd's death,” attorney Michelle Simpson Tuegel told The Hill.

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“And if you find that person, it's really concerning because it means they were so disengaged this summer,” she added. “That, to me, weighs in favor of someone who just doesn't care and doesn't sympathize with … all the things that people were protesting in the summer.”

Crowds came out this week for the beginning of the trial, and the Twin Cities area has been riven in recent years by high-profile trials involving police.

Philando Castile, a Black man, was shot and killed in his car during a traffic stop in 2016. Mohamed Noor, who is Black, is the only Minneapolis police officer to be convicted of murder; he was found guilty of third-degree murder in 2019 shooting of Justine Ruszczyk, who was white.

“I think they're gonna be hard pressed to find somebody who doesn't have some opinion one way or the other,” Los Angeles-based civil rights lawyer DeWitt Lacy said. “But really, the question is not whether or not they have an opinion, one way or the other, but whether or not they can follow the law.”

Potential jurors are required to fill out a lengthy questionnaire and then are questioned by the prosecution and defense. From this process, known as voir dire, both sides attempt to discern if a person is fit to be on the jury. 

Both attorneys, however, said that having a jury that is representative of Minneapolis was crucial to the case.

Hennepin County is roughly 75 percent white, but the Powderhorn community where Floyd was killed is more diverse, with over 40 percent of its population being people of color.

“People have different conversations when minorities are present in the room,” Lacy said. “And it's a lot harder for white jurors, in particular, or jurors who are not African American, to disregard the context of police in America and policing in America as it relates to Black people when there are Black people present.”

As of Thursday afternoon, the emerging jury consisted of five men and one woman. Jurors aren’t shown while they’re being questioned, but according to pool reports three of the men are white, one is Black, one is Hispanic and the woman is a person of color.   

The process, which began Tuesday, could last up to three weeks. Chauvin’s defense team can block up to 15 would-be jurors without a stated reason, while prosecutors — led by Minnesota Attorney General Keith EllisonKeith EllisonDerek Chauvin asks for new trial Minnesota AG says he 'felt a little bad' for Chauvin after guilty verdict Minnesota AG explains why Floyd's death not charged as hate crime MORE (D) — can block up to nine. 

Moreover, both sides can move to have a juror tossed “for cause,” in which they explain their reasoning. They can do this an unlimited amount of times. Selection will end when a jury of 12 people and two alternates is decided upon.

Explaining the charges

Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill on Thursday decided to reinstate a charge of third-degree murder that he initially dismissed back in October.

The reversal came after the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled on Friday that Cahill should reconsider the charge.

The addition of the charge increases the chances for a conviction because it lowers the standard of proof that the prosecution must prove to the jury. Minnesota is one of only three states that have third-degree murder charges.

“In Minnesota, third-degree murder only requires that you do something that is obviously dangerous, though not necessarily likely to kill,” civil rights attorney Brian Dunn said. “So, it's a lower standard of proof, but it has a high sentence, 25 years.”

Second-degree murder in Minnesota can be classified as either intentional or unintentional; Chauvin’s second-degree charge is the latter.

Prosecutors would need to prove without a reasonable doubt that Chauvin killed Floyd unintentionally while kneeling on his neck. As part of this, they would need to show that Chauvin “intended to commit the aggravated assault and battery,” on Floyd, Miami-based attorney David Weinstein explained.

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“[Third-degree murder] gives the jurors an opportunity to convict on one, all or none of those on sort of a sliding scale, based on how they view the prosecution's evidence of intent, or lack thereof, on the part of Derek Chauvin,” Weinstein told The Hill.

The big picture

Since Floyd’s death, the country has tried to reconcile what happened with an increased push for police reform and racial equity. Both Democrats and Republicans have introduced bills that would change how policing is done in the country. The Democrats' bill, named after Floyd, recently passed the House, but faces an uphill battle in the 50-50 Senate.

For many Americans, a conviction in the case would not only be justice for Floyd, but also a step in the right direction regarding how law enforcement operates across the country.

The trial will be seen as evidence of whether police can be successfully prosecuted and convicted. “[So], this isn’t just a trial about Chauvin,” Dunn said. “This is a trial about policing in America.”