Jury selection began Tuesday in Derek Chauvin’s high-profile trial—despite an ongoing legal dispute over the possible reinstatement of a third-degree murder charge against the former Minneapolis police officer.
Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill on Tuesday made the unusual decision to move the 44-year-old’s trial forward, worrying prosecutors who argued this week that proceeding before the third-degree charge has been decided on by an appeals court could ultimately result in Chauvin’s case getting tossed.
Chauvin, one of the four officers charged for his involvement in George Floyd’s death, currently faces two charges, second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, at his trial in Hennepin County District Court. The former cop is accused of violently arresting Floyd over a counterfeit $20 bill on May 25 and kneeling on the unarmed Black man’s neck for more than eight minutes. He faces up to 40 years in prison.
On Monday, Cahill delayed the jury selection process, which is expected to take roughly three weeks, after the Minnesota Court of Appeals on Friday said that the previously tossed third-degree murder charge against Chauvin should be reconsidered. Cahill, who ruled against the third-degree charge last year, said he wanted to hear the appeals court’s ruling on whether the new charge should be added to Chauvin’s case.
Chauvin’s defense lawyer, Eric Nelson, has previously stated he intends to file an appeal with the Minnesota Supreme Court if the third-degree murder charge is reinstated.
Prosecutors argued Monday that jury selection should be postponed until the appeal is resolved, arguing that jurors need clarity on what charges Chauvin will face at trial. They also want to wait for the appeals court to determine whether the trial is allowed to move forward before bringing dozens of potential jurors to the courthouse.
But the Monday delay didn’t last long, with jury selection resuming Tuesday morning at Cahill’s direction.
“This court will be seating jurors for a trial about which we don’t know what the exact charges are going to be yet,” Assistant Minnesota Attorney General Matthew Frank, the lead prosecutor in the case, said Monday. “Our position is that while this appeal is pending, the court doesn’t have authority to hear matters that are involved in the trial.”
Prosecutors fear the decision to move forward before the appeals court decision could get the case tossed entirely. They worry that while the appeals court waits to rule on the third-degree charge, the case isn’t in Cahill’s jurisdiction.
“[Chauvin] is effectively in a ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ situation,” prosecutors said in the Monday motion, adding that the former cop “can take his chances at trial… and if he is convicted, he can now also claim that he is entitled to reversal because the District Court lacked jurisdiction at a crucial moment in the trial.”
“The District Court correctly acknowledged that it lacks jurisdiction to even hear arguments on [Chauvin’s] alternative theories against including a third-degree murder charge, let alone decide that issue,” the motion adds. “The District Court mistakenly believes, however, that it may select the jurors who will ultimately adjudicate that very charge.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, the appeals court had not made its ruling.
“We’re not trying to delay this case,” Frank said Tuesday. “We want to try it right, and we can only try it once.”
Despite prosecutors’ pleas for a delay, Cahill called in the first group of potential jurors on Tuesday, telling them that additional charges could be added in the high-profile case.
“I’m going to keep going until I’m told to stop,” Cahill said.
As of Tuesday afternoon, two of the 12 jurors needed for the trial had been picked—a young chemist who said he had “somewhat favorable” views about the Black Lives Matter movement and a woman from northern Minnesota who said she was a “go with the flow, open-minded” type of person.
“I consider myself a pretty logical person… I rely on facts and logic and what’s in front of me. Opinion and facts are important distinctions for me,” the first juror, who is white, said in court Tuesday.
It remains unclear if there will be another delay in the jury selection process as the issue of the third-degree murder charge works its way through the courts. Nelson agreed with Cahill’s decision Tuesday to continue with jury selection as he appeals.
“We’re prepared to try this case. It is not our intent to cause delay. However, I do have an ethical obligation to my client,” Nelson said in court Monday.
Jonathan Smith, the executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, said that it was unusual to see the third-degree murder charge raised just days before the trial began‚ but he is not surprised that Cahill moved the trial forward.
He does, however, expect that Cahill’s decision will trigger some sort of delay for the start of opening arguments.
“We will know the answer about the third-degree murder charge before opening arguments. That’s all the matters,” he said. “It’s the same facts and the charges are closely related. Essentially, the new charge allows for a lower level of intent requirement. So I believe we are going to go forward. There is going to be an appeal no matter what happens in this case so it doesn’t matter.”
Smith noted that the prosecutor’s decision to push for the third-degree murder charge so close to the trial is worrisome.
“They don’t want to prove a higher level of intent. Something clearly spooked them out,” he said, adding that it will be a “real blow to them” if this logistical loose end is not resolved quickly.
“Ordinarily you want to go to trial demonstrating real strength. And to me, it looks like there was a shift in the strategy in the last minute,” he added.
Smith believes one reason for this insistence in a delay is their worry they will not be able to show the required level of intent that Chauvin meant Floyd harm—which could cost them the trial that will be watched around the world. He added, however, that regardless of this lingering appeals decision, the defense will argue for a mistral “over a half of dozen times anyway.”
“I think their biggest challenge is not going to be the third-degree murder charge decision—it will be finding a jury in Hennepin that can be a fair given the press and demonstrations over the summer and everything else.”