In my final year of middle school, the theater department chose 12 Angry Men as their winter play. Written by Reginald Rose in 1954, the story takes place in a jury room as a dozen men deliberate, with a guilty verdict meaning death for the accused, the fate of a city teen. I got the role of Juror 4 — an intelligent, wealthy, and cautious woman. Even though the play was fictional and my fellow thirteen-year-old castmates and I were not weighing the life of a “criminal” in our hands, those six months of rehearsals, blocking, and eventual performances gave birth to my fascination with the jury system. In a society where our race, religion, and nationality color our view of the world, the jury room forces those involved to color outside the lines they’ve lived in.
Now, twelve Twin City jurors face this same responsibility as they will decide the fate of former Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin.
On May 25th of last year, George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man, died after being arrested and pinned to the ground under the knee of Derek Chauvin, a white officer, for more than nine minutes. Mr. Chauvin and several other Minnesota police officers arrived at the scene after a store clerk reported that Mr. Floyd had paid for cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill.
After police handcuffed Mr. Floyd, the situation quickly escalated. Outrage would soon lash across the country after a bystander released a video of officer Chauvin holding his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck as he yelled out “I can’t breathe” and yearned for breath. Months of protests occurred after the video went viral, and over 150 cities saw civilians come out to the streets in support of Black Lives Matter.
Defendant Chauvin was fired a day after Mr. Floyd’s death and has since pleaded not guilty to all charges. If convicted, he could face up to 40 years in prison for second-degree unintentional murder, up to 25 years for third-degree murder, and up to 10 years for second-degree manslaughter. The charges are individual from one another so that Mr. Chauvin can be convicted of none, some, or all of these counts. The three other former officers involved — Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng, and Tou Thao — are charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter. They will stand trial this summer.
Defendant Chauvin’s trial began last Monday and will continue for the next few weeks. Since then, emotional witness testimonies and statements from paramedics, firefighters, Mr. Chauvin’s supervisor, and more have filled in the gaps on what happened on that life-changing Memorial Day.
The prosecution argues that the defendant’s restraint of Mr. Floyd occurred for an overly extended time, which was the “substantial” cause of his loss of consciousness and ultimate death in police custody. In contrast, the defense attorneys for the former officer ask jurors to consider mountains of evidence outside the bystander and body camera videos. Eric Nelson, the lawyer for defendant Chauvin, said there are more than 50,000 items in evidence and told jurors the case “is clearly more than about 9 minutes and 29 seconds.”
Mr. Floyd's exact cause of death will be looked at in-depth this week, shaping up to be one of the most crucial points of this trial. The New York Times reports that the county medical examiner ruled his death a homicide caused by a combination of the officer's use of force, the presence of fentanyl and methamphetamine in Mr. Floyd's system, and his underlying health conditions.
The jury has three Black men, one Black woman, and two women who identified themselves as multiracial. There are two white men and four white women. Both alternates are white women.
The jury's racial makeup is surprisingly diverse — even more so than the city of Minneapolis, which has a Black population of 20% percent. All of the jurors come from Hennepin County, which is demographically about 74% white and 14% Black, according to census data.
Some of the jurors deciding one of the highest-profile trials in the last decade include a Black grandmother who expressed favorable views of the Black Lives Matter movement, saying: "I am Black. My life matters." An immigrant who has lived in Minnesota for about 20 years and wants to hear more of defendant Chauvin's side before making a judgment. A woman whose uncle is a cop and was "super excited" to get summoned to such a famous case. A Black man who saw the video of Floyd's death; afterward, he told his wife: "It could have been me."
Back in December, months before these potential jurors were sworn into court and questioned one-by-one in a process known as voir dire; the jury pool received an extensive 14-page questionnaire in the mail.
Prospective jurors were asked about their thoughts on the criminal justice system, if they believe Minnesota police use unequal amounts of force on Black suspects than whites and what knowledge they have of the case from media reports. Some questions aimed to uncover the individual's range of viewpoints like "What podcasts do you regularly listen to?" In contrast, others attempted to understand their knowledge of technical circumstances, such as "Do you have any martial arts training or experience?"
"Unless you're living under a rock, there's no one in Minneapolis, and probably no one in the United States, who's not familiar with George Floyd's death," Daniel S. Medwed, a law professor at Northeastern University, told The Washington Post. "You want people who have heard of the case but are willing to put aside any preexisting biases or any initial opinions about guilt or innocence."
The questionnaire helped weed out hundreds of people, and on March 9th, voir dire began. It took about two weeks to carve a pool of more than 300 potential jurors down to 12 with two alternates. For the defense, Nelson, Chauvin's lawyer, questioned potential jurors, while Steve Schleicher questioned them for the prosecution.
Under court order, limited information about the jurors has been made public, besides their race, gender, age range, and audio clips of their interviews during jury selection. But from the audio I've heard, Juror 76 stands out.
When Nelson asked the Black man in his 30s or 40s why he wants to serve on this jury, he says, "[George Floyd] is a Black man. You see a lot of Black people get killed, and no one is held accountable for it. And you wonder why or what was the decisions. And so with this, maybe I'll be in the room to know why."
He lived in the area where Mr. Floyd was killed in and remembered police often riding through the neighborhood after someone had been shot. "It was known for, like, the police to ride through the neighborhood with "Another One Bites The Dust," he states. "And, you know - and it's like they just - like, they antagonized us." The defense eventually dismissed this juror.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys can dismiss prospective jurors without cause, which is known as a peremptory challenge. Mr. Chauvin's team was allowed 18 of these challenges and used 14. The prosecution was allowed ten and used eight.
The defense generally struck people who expressed a negative view of police and favorable opinions of Black Lives Matter, while the prosecution dismissed those who expressed positive views of police behavior. Both sides also considered the juror's race, which has long been thought to indicate how someone will vote in a trial.
Due to unfair generalizations, Black jurors are continuously struck at higher rates than other jurors. Though there are no comprehensive statistics on how often prosecutors strike potential jurors because of their race, looking at American legal systems, especially in the South — it isn't hard to see attorneys upholding such discriminatory practices.
In a 2010 report by the Equal Justice Initiative, they found that over half of all juries that delivered death sentences in Houston County, Alabama, between 2005 and 2009 were all white; and the other half had only a single Black juror. This fact is especially unsettling because as of 2014, 42% of individuals on Death Row in the United States were Black.
A review by the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center found that in Caddo Parish, Louisiana, prosecutors dismissed 48 percent of qualified Black jurors between 1997 and 2009 and only fourteen percent of potential white jurors.
The Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional to strike potential jurors because of their race in the 1986 landmark case, Batson v. Kentucky. But, even then, Justice Thurgood Marshall had a feeling Baston was a faulty band-aid on the oozing scab of race-based jury selection. His skepticism was quickly proven true.
As soon as Batson was decided, prosecutors came up with methods to avoid it. In a 1996 opinion, an Illinois appellate judge discussed some of the "race-neutral" reasons judges accepted for striking jurors: too old, too young, living with a girlfriend, over-educated, lack of maturity; unemployed, employed as a barber; etc. "New prosecutors are given a manual, probably entitled, 'Handy Race-Neutral Explanations' or '20 Time-Tested Race-Neutral Explanations,'" he joked.
But this joke was the reality in courts across America. In the 1990s, prosecutors received handouts listing reasons for striking jurors based on traits like body language. In 2004, a similar list was given to Texas prosecutors, including justifications like "Agreed with O. J. Simpson verdict" and "Watched gospel TV programs."
Prosecutors assume Black people are more likely to be victims of the incarceration system, face violence under police's hands, and can comprehend the unequal treatment Black citizens endure in the criminal justice system compared to whites. Thus, they will not sympathize with a white defendant as much as they would with a Black defendant. In recent cases of white police officers committing violence against people of color, this same idea holds. So, one by one, jurors of color are plunged out of the jury pool.
For example, in 1992, four Los Angeles policemen — three of them white — were acquitted of the horrendous beating of Rodney King, an African-American man. There were no Black individuals on the jury. Instead, nine white, one Latino, one biracial, and one Asian individual decided that those officers should walk away Scott free after beating a man with batons for fifteen minutes.
In 2013, a jury of six women had to decide whether George Zimmerman acted in self-defense when he fatally shot Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, during an altercation at a Florida townhouse community the year before. Nearly all of the jurors had children. None of them were Black. After three weeks of testimony, the jury acquitted him as well.
Suppose six Black mothers made up the jury? Perhaps they would've been able to understand Sybrina Fulton's, Mr. Martin's mother, cries for her 17-year old son's spilled blood on the sidewalk. Ms. Fulton will never receive the closure that the killer of her son is behind bars. Instead, she watches him profit off her son's death.
Mary Moriarty, the former chief public defender for Minneapolis, watched the questioning of the potential juror for defendant Chauvin's trial, number 76. She expected him to be struck but hoped he wouldn't be. "We should start," she wrote in a column, "by recognizing that their lived experiences with racism are not justification to excuse them."
The elimination of Black jurors in criminal trials is deliberate and has haunting effects. Not to mention, many police officers charged with abusing Black individuals don't even go to trial because their nearly all-white grand juries don't see it fit. More recently, Eric Gardner's killer and Breonna Taylor's murders not facing federal charges are perfect examples.
As a North Carolina judge concluded, in 2012, "Race, not reservations about the death penalty, not connections to the criminal justice system, but race, drives prosecution decisions about which citizens may participate in one of the most important and visible aspects of democratic government."
Many of us might feel a sliver of hope erupting in our hearts since the twelve jurors for defendant Chauvin's trial come from a variety of different backgrounds. Even if the whole world is watching, the ultimate verdict rests in 24 palms.
"Having the jury be diverse will be really important in people's sense of the legitimacy of the process," Irene Oritseweyinmi Joe, a law professor at the University of California at Davis, told The Washington Post. "It's important to think through who the jurors are, what their beliefs are, what their experiences are and the degree to which they've excluded jurors who have seen or believe there is systemic racial bias in the system."
Sympathy is the heart of the jury system. The jury on Mr. Chauvin's trial holds the potential to straighten one faulty bone in the body of Minnesota's police department. It is a shame that we will never know how many past juries could've done the same because diversity was seen as a threat.
"It takes a great deal of courage to stand alone even if you believe in something very strongly," one juror says in 12 Angry Men. When the verdict for Derek Chauvin is revealed in the upcoming weeks, I'm sure we will know whether or not courage really did prevail in the deliberation room.