Derek Chauvin was convicted after facing a jury of George Floyd's peers | Mary Chao
A protest in Englewood, NJ on June 6, 2020 condemning the killing of George Floyd and seeking justice and changes to policing through out the country NorthJersey.com
In the end, it wasn't just the video. It was the audience.
"You will learn what happened in that 9 minutes and 29 seconds," prosecutor Jerry Blackwell told jurors in Derek Chauvin's trial. The jury of 12 watched as George Floyd said “I can’t breathe” 27 times, while Chauvin knelt unflinchingly on his neck.
A video shot with a phone by a bystander at the right place at the right time was at the heart of the trial. But it was the composition of the jury that dictated the outcome of the trial.
The country has been down this path before. It was almost 30 years ago that four Los Angeles police officers were acquitted after the videotaped beating of defenseless Black construction worker Rodney King. That trial was moved after the officers' lawyers convinced a judge they couldn't get a fair trial in L.A. In suburban Simi Valley, a jury of 10 whites, one Filipina and a Latino man – but no African Americans – chose not to convict.
What changed in Minneapolis this week?
Maybe it was a jury that finally looked like the victim's peers.
Chauvin's jury was a multiracial group. The panel of 12 and three alternates included three Black men, one Black woman and two jurors who identified with more than one race. The jury makeup was 57% white, 29% Black and 14% multiracial compared to the Hennepin County population of 74% white and 13% Black.
The deceased victim, George Floyd, was 100% Black.
Views on policing vary depending on where you grew up and the color of your skin. An inner-city Black person's view of law enforcement will certainly be different from that of a suburban white person without the same life experience with the cops. A diverse jury more accurately represents varied backgrounds and viewpoints.
Black people were arrested at higher rates than white people in 92% of police jurisdictions that reported more than 100 arrests in 2019, according to data gathered by Police Scorecard, an effort led by activist and data scientist Samuel Sinyangwe. The analysis of nationwide policing also found that while Black and white people use drugs at similar rates, Blacks were arrested for drug possession more often than whites in three-quarters of departments.
That's a stark reminder of why law enforcement is viewed differently by different groups.
That means the jury selection process, if not monitored, can also become a method for whitewashing justice.
Juries are picked from the pool of registered voters, biasing the process toward a more affluent, educated population. Prosecutors and defense attorneys can strike potential jurors who express a fervent bias for or against the police. But they also get peremptory challenges that allow them to remove people without explanation (although they are not supposed to do so solely due to race.)
The Chauvin jury likely ended up more balanced because of the relatively strict limits on such challenges under Minnesota law: five for the defense and three for prosecution.
Lawyers for the prosecution and defense questioned potential jurors about their knowledge of Floyd’s death, their opinions of Chauvin, and their attitudes about police, racial injustice and the protests and rioting that followed Floyd’s death.
Some of them questioned how much force was used against Floyd. Some believe the criminal justice system needs reform. More than one questioned the movement to defund police.
Discussing her opinion about Black Lives Matter, one woman responded, “I am Black, and my life matters."
In all criminal cases, the defendant has the constitutional right to have a jury of their peers at trial, a requirement enshrined in the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Did the racial makeup of the jury play a role in Chauvin's conviction? Consider other cases of police violence against victims of color in recent years. In Minnesota, the jury that acquitted Latino Officer Jeronimo Yanez of second-degree manslaughter in 2017 in the shooting death of Philando Castile, a Black man, included 10 whites and two Blacks.
When Chicago Officer Jason Van Dyke was convicted a year later of the shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, the jury included one Black person, three Hispanics and one Asian member. Van Dyke, who is white, fired 16 times at McDonald, a Black teen who was carrying a knife but walking away from the officer at the time of his death, according to reports.
In 2019, a Texas jury that convicted white Dallas police officer Amber Guyger for the shooting death of Botham Jean, an African American man killed at his home, consisted largely of women and people of color.
"It's very rare," Live PD television show commentator and former Rochester, New York, police chief James Sheppard said of the conviction of a police officer on murder charges. "What really is the difference is you have video."
Sheppard felt that the evidence was so overwhelming, that the racial composition of the jury did not matter.
In America, there is a fervent culture of hero worship of police and military. I know. I am married to a Marine colonel who was also a former prosecutor. Our military and police face unimaginable risks every day and we thank them for their service – and Americans want to think the best of those who serve us.
But the protests that followed Floyd's death may have shifted public opinion in support of systemic change.
After hearing closing arguments Monday, the jury took just about 10 hours to discuss the evidence presented to them during the three-week trial.
Leonia resident Lenno McLean said he was pleased to see the racial makeup of the jury. McLean is the chair of the Leonia mayor's Advisory Committee on Racial Equity. He also helped organize a protest last summer after Floyd's death.
However, McLean believes that race only played a minor role in the verdicts.
"I don't see how anyone can watch that video and not find him guilty," he said.
Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo testifying that Chauvin's action was inconsistent with training helped the prosecution, said Sheppard.
"Cops are not inclined to testify against other cops," he said, noting that if an officer gets a reputation of ratting another out, the officer may not get backup when necessary.
In the Chauvin case, it was incontrovertible evidence that resulted in the guilty verdicts, Sheppard said.
"He was guilty from Day One," he said.
Includes reporting by USA Today.
Mary Chao 趙 慶 華 covers the Asian community and real estate for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news out of North Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.