Jurisprudence

A Jury Expert Defends the Selection Process for the Derek Chauvin Trial

“The jury is the best system that we have.”

Mug shot of Derek Chauvin.
Derek Chauvin poses for a mug shot after being charged in the death of George Floyd. Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office via Getty Images

The jury that will decide the fate of Derek Chauvin at his Minneapolis murder trial has been selected. The extensive questions they had to answer during the process give us a window into what they already know about the George Floyd case and their views on Black Lives Matter, the police, and more. As reported by BuzzFeed News, the jurors include a white man in his 20s who said, “I don’t love the Black Lives Matter organization”; a Black woman in her 50s who said, “There are two sides to every story”; and a white woman who said that Floyd was “not a model citizen.” And these are the people who made the jury.

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Attorneys in high-profile cases, especially cases involving police, frequently face questions about their juries, according to Suja Thomas, a professor of law at the University of Illinois College of Law and the author of The Missing American Jury: Restoring the Fundamental Constitutional Role of the Criminal, Civil, and Grand Juries. Over the phone, Thomas, who has spent decades studying juries, explained how lawyers in the case decided what kind of juror views were too toxic, how it was possible to find people who have never seen the video of Floyd’s death, and why we should believe in the jury system. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Aymann Ismail: How would a lawyer or prosecutor in a case like Derek Chauvin’s trial even begin to find an “impartial” juror?  

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Suja Thomas: I think jury selection in every case is done in the same way. What I mean by that is, if you’re a defense lawyer, you’re trying to get the people who are going to be most sympathetic to your client. If you’re a prosecutor in any case, you’re similarly trying to get the people on the jury who are going to be most sympathetic to the state’s case, and that is prosecuting that criminal defendant. So even if you have a controversial case, you’re still trying to get the people who are most sympathetic.

So the question is, how did that controversy affect those people? As we all know, a lot of people saw the George Floyd video. And so if you’re the defendant’s lawyer and you’re picking jurors, you have probably fewer people who are going to be sympathetic to your case, and so you may have to compromise on who you normally want to have on your case, because many, many people have seen that video.

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The video seemed unavoidable to me.

I think there are probably a number of people who haven’t seen the video, who actually avoided it, I think, because it’s so upsetting. But that set of people also would have, potentially, a particular point of view about what happened and the police. So a criminal defendant’s lawyer is trying to get the people who aren’t sympathetic. The prosecution is trying to get people who are sympathetic, and it makes it harder where there’s evidence that’s out there that people can see.

If you’re a defense lawyer in this case, how are you assessing these jurors?

It’s a weird case for a defense lawyer. Usually it’s the government prosecuting. Here, you have this mixed situation where you have a police officer who’s actually a defendant, and the state—who normally employs that police officer—prosecuting him.

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This case is a big case. Very few cases go to a jury trial, one, but then two, very few police officers get tried by juries, or get tried at all, because oftentimes there’ll be a judge who tries the case [without a jury] if a trial occurs with a police officer.

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Of the 15 jurors, including the three alternates, four of them are Black, and two of them are multiracial. The remainder are white. Do you have any sense for how this might shake out during the trial?

Sometimes people like to look at this simply in terms of race, and you can’t just look at it simply in terms of race, because it’s always more complicated than that. Even if it wasn’t complicated, which it is of course, you need 12 people to actually say someone’s guilty, or 12 people to say someone’s not guilty. So, you need this group of people that work together to decide what happened here. It looks like a good jury to me, because it looks like it represents a pretty diverse set of people, without knowing their occupations, of course.

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I want to go through some of these quotes and just get some quickfire reactions to them. “No one wants to take someone’s life, if that’s what happened. So that’s where the empathy comes from.” From a single white woman parent in her 50s.

If I were the prosecution, I’d probably be a little bit concerned about her, because that’s someone who possibly could say that this was justifiable.

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“There are two sides to every story.” From a Black grandmother in her 50s.

My reaction to these are very much based on my own experiences and has nothing to do with me as a lawyer. I’m obviously thinking, “OK, she’s saying that, but she’s probably a great person for the prosecution.” Right? Because she’s a Black grandmother in her 50s.

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“I don’t love the Black Lives Matter organization.” From a white chemist in his 20s.

If you’re prosecution, this is the person that you’re a little concerned about.

“Every life matters.” From a Black man in his 40s who emigrated to the U.S.

I talked to some people on the ground when I was in Minneapolis, and some people described concern with people like this who are Black but emigrated, saying that they are just as complicit in this systematic oppression of Black Americans because they are immigrants, and they’re not a descendant of slavery.

I think for this one, there would be concerns, and I do understand the immigration thing too. So there would be concern that this particular person may be more defense-oriented.

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Is there a question that I haven’t asked about this jury that I should have asked?

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So this is a very rare case—an actual jury is going to decide and I think that’s a good thing. We don’t have many jury trials in the United States today, despite people’s perceptions that jury trials occur all the time. I see that on TV, but that doesn’t happen. So it’s a good thing for our system that this jury trial is happening. The second thing is that police officers can be engaged in bad behavior, and they are rarely charged, and they rarely go to trial, and they don’t go to jury trial often. So this is another good thing about this case that this officer is being tried by a jury. I think that’s something that people don’t recognize.

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When I was in Minneapolis, I noticed the Hennepin County court building was surrounded by all this fencing, barbed wire, camera crews, and National Guardsmen. The perimeter is locked down. Can’t that presence influence the jury?

There’s added stress. Absolutely. You’re on a high-profile case already, but then on top of that, there’s concern that there are safety issues. So that has to weigh on people’s minds. I think some people might have that in the back of their mind when they’re actually deliberating. What verdict that we come to, how that affects the rest of my life. So I think it can’t not be in people’s minds. I think the metal fencing, the barbed wired, the news crews, the National Guardsmen, that’s just a reminder of how important this case is. Also, yes, if there isn’t a conviction, there will be protests, and they will be subject to criticism, but on the other hand, if there is a conviction, it can also be subject to criticism. So I think that all of that has to weigh on any individual. It’s just almost a natural thing that happens in a case that is so majorly in the national news.

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Will the $27 million settlement for George Floyd’s family and his daughters have any impact on the outcome of this trial?

Yeah. I don’t know what they were thinking. I just don’t. I think that it’s possible that some set of people will think that he is guilty because of that settlement, but I also think that it’s possible that some set of people will say, “The family has enough, and that’s enough, and so we don’t need to convict on the highest charge, the most serious charge.” I think it could actually prejudice the jury either way, but I think people could put it aside and say, “OK, that’s what they did. It is not something that should have happened, and Minneapolis wants to take care of it, but that doesn’t have anything to do with whether he should be convicted or not convicted of the charges.”

A journalist I talked to in Minneapolis, his name is Mel Reeves, he said, “The community understands that all the folks sitting on the jury have to come through the United States educational system. I’ve been looking forward to writing a piece called ‘How to Sit a Fair Jury Among a Rigged Population.’ The jury is always programmed, on some level, to not believe what it is that they see and believe rather what it is that official people tell them officially, especially white folks. That is the reason people have their doubts.” What do you think of that?

I think he has his experiences and his beliefs, and so he has valid concerns, but the jury is the best system that we have, and it’s a system that we don’t use enough. The community deciding as to whether someone should be convicted and go to prison for doing something in society is the best system that we have. Almost no cases get tried by a jury. This is a really good moment where a police officer is actually being, at least the prosecution thinks, being held accountable for doing something that the prosecution believes is provable as major crime. Now the community gets to decide whether or not that’s the case. I think that’s good that the community is involved.

We’re all looking at criticisms, right? And we can try to reform the system. I believe that reform should occur, but the best thing is happening right now, and that is a jury’s going to decide this case.

Update, March 29, 2021: The question about the Black juror in his 40s who immigrated to the United States has been updated to include additional context that had originally been edited out.

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