The jury that will decide the fate of a white former Minneapolis police officer charged in George Floyd’s death is unusually diverse by local standards, and that’s boosting activists’ hopes for a rare conviction.
The panel of 15 includes nine people who are white and six who are Black or multiracial, according to the court. If the court follows standard practice and the alternates are the last three chosen, the 12 who deliberate would be evenly split between whites and people of color. Opening statements are Monday.
“It’s a small step in the right direction,” said Trahern Crews, an organizer and spokesman for Black Lives Matter in Minnesota. African Americans bring “an institutional memory of the police” to jury rooms that whites and even other people of color don’t share, he said.
It’s very rare to seat such a mixed jury in Minnesota, said Mary Moriarty, a former chief public defender for Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis. That’s important because they’ll bring a “very different lens” to their deliberations, she said, though she said it’s a mistake to think people of color all view things the same.
Court records obtained by Moriarty show Blacks are chronically underrepresented on juries in Hennepin County, which is 74% white and 14% Black. The jury pool in 2019 — created from lists of people with driver’s licenses or state ID cards, as well as voter registration lists — was 79% white and 8% Black.
People not on the lists don’t get summoned.
Scholars, courts and legal groups have increasingly advocated for greater jury diversity — not just by race, but by gender and socioeconomic backgrounds. Experts say when jurors share the same background, they’re less likely to question their own biases and preconceptions heading into deliberations. And they say jurors from different backgrounds may evaluate witnesses differently, including how much weight to give their testimony.
Derek Chauvin is charged with murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death May 25. The Black man was declared dead after Chauvin, who is white, pressed his knee against his neck for about nine minutes while he was handcuffed and pleading that he couldn’t breathe. The widely seen video set off street protests in Minneapolis, some violent, that spread across the U.S. and the world.
It’s rare for police officers to stand trial for fatal shootings. When they do, recent history suggests a more diverse jury increases the odds for conviction, although the record is mixed.
In Minnesota, the jury that acquitted suburban officer Jeronimo Yanez, a Latino, of second-degree manslaughter in 2017 in the shooting death of Philando Castile, a Black man, included 10 whites and two Blacks.
The jury that convicted Black Minneapolis officer Mohamed Noor, a Somali American, in 2019 of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the shooting death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, a white Australian woman, included six people of color, including two Filipino men, an Ethiopian man and a Pakistani woman.
Elsewhere, the Texas jury that convicted white Dallas police officer Amber Guyger in 2019 in the shooting death of Botham Jean, a Black man in his own home, was largely women and people of color. Observers credited the makeup of the jury as a key factor in her conviction.
Two Blacks were among the 12 jurors and two alternates picked for a Texas panel in 2019 that convicted white officer Roy D. Oliver II of murder for firing into a car packed with teenagers in suburban Dallas, killing Jordan Edwards, a Black 15-year-old.
There was just one African American on the jury that convicted white Chicago officer Jason Van Dyke of second-degree murder in 2018, in the shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, a Black teen who was carrying a knife but was walking away when Van Dyke fired at him 16 times. Blacks make up one-third of Chicago’s population, but the jury also included three Hispanics and one Asian American.
During questioning for Chauvin’s jury, some people in the pool were strikingly direct about how the color of their skin affected their view of Floyd’s death.
A Black man in his 30s who immigrated to America more than 14 years ago said he talked with his wife about the case. “We talked about how it could have been me, or anyone else,” he said.
Another Black man in his 30s, asked about his response to a jury questionnaire on the extent of discrimination in America, said it goes “well beyond what the media can even report.” And he added: “Black lives just want to be treated as equals and not killed or treated in an aggressive manner simply because they are Black,” he said.
Both are on the jury.
Attorneys on both sides used questions about Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter to probe deeper attitudes on race and policing. Jurors were also asked whether the protests and violence following Floyd’s death had a positive or negative effect on the community, and whether they supported defunding the Minneapolis Police Department.
One juror, a white woman in her 50s, related an anecdote that she said helped her understand white privilege: a conversation she had with a Black co-worker who described how her Black son could be in much greater danger if pulled over by police than the white juror’s son would be.
Moriarty, the former public defender, pointed out that several potential jurors were suburbanites who said they had never experienced discrimination or known anyone who had. Their interactions with police had been positive.
That underscored the need to get the perspective of African Americans into the jury room, she said.
When the jury was complete, Floyd family attorney Ben Crump — who negotiated a $27 million settlement with the city — issued a statement that made no comment on its racial makeup, but highlighted the polarizing issue of race in Floyd’s death.
“This is not a hard case,” Crump said, and added: “If George Floyd had been white, the facts would be undisputed and justice would be swift. We expect the same for George.”
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