Judge Peter Cahill has, to date, exhibited a most even judicial temperament in Derek Chauvin’s murder trial. By comparison, his speech from the bench on Wednesday morning was a tirade. He attacked the press for publishing details about courthouse security and for revealing information from lawyers’ notes or computers. The day would only get worse for the judge, who is trying to find 14 jurors for a full jury with alternates, for Chauvin’s trial.
It turns out two jurors already seated had to be dismissed thanks to an announcement by Minneapolis Democrats that the city will pay a $27 million settlement to George Floyd’s family in a civil suit. The timing of the event may just compromise the trial to the point it must be moved.
Judge Tears Into Media
“Any media who are present in this room will refrain from even attempting to look at what is on counsel tables. Either for the state or for the defense.” With that, Judge Cahill launched into the press for attempting to see the lawyers’ post-it notes, paperwork, and computer screens. He called the behavior “absolutely inappropriate.” This admonition was followed by a clear warning or threat to shut down the court’s media center altogether if reports continue to be published about the “security arrangements on the 18th floor and other places.”
Local reports by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune state that print journalists “rotate daily in pairs into the 18th-floor courtroom.” The judicial center was described as “a heavily fortified courthouse that is essentially closed to all other business.” Judge Cahill has repeated his commitment to juror security and, at least for now, juror anonymity. He may release juror names, but only after a verdict in the case.
Poisoning The Jury Pool
In light of the pervasive international press coverage of the Floyd family settlement, the court had to question the previously approved jurors. The judge conducted the questioning alone via Zoom call to those who had been chosen. Judge Cahill questioned the various jurors exposed to the story and asked about their ability to be impartial in light of it. The result was two jurors removed, and the number seated was reduced back down to seven. Those removed were “a white man in his 30s and a Hispanic man in his 20s.”
However, the prosecutor did not approve of the outcome and asked the judge to go on the record regarding these re-examined jurors. These decisions and the reasons for them may very well be the basis for an appeal, depending on what happens, and Judge Cahill’s reasons were memorialized for the record so they may be challenged later on. He said he thought the jurors were honest when they reported their abilities regarding impartiality.
Race To The Bottom
The final prospective juror examined on Wednesday lived in the neighborhood where Mr. Floyd struggled against then-Officer Chauvin. He said, “Being a black man in America – I experience racism on a day-to-day basis.” He went on to say that whites benefit from a system lenient on them and hard on blacks. Defense lawyer Eric Nelson tried to have the court dismiss the juror for cause, but the request was denied. Mr. Nelson then used a peremptory challenge to dismiss the man. The Star-Tribune is keeping track of the racial breakdown of the trial participants. They report the racial breakdown at the conclusion of Wednesday’s proceedings as “four people of color and five people who are white.”
What’s interesting is that Hennepin County, Minnesota, is 70% white. Race is the all-important consideration in the case; if the racial makeup of the jury were to reflect the community, it would comprise ten white jurors and four “people of color.” It seems unlikely that this point will be stressed by the big box media, however.
Judge Cahill said he would rule on defense motions to continue the case, as well as to move the trial, on Friday. He also granted additional peremptory jury strikes to both defense and prosecution. The court will continue its efforts to seat a jury on Thursday.
Read more from Scott D. Cosenza.