The trial of George Floyd’s accused killer, Derek Chauvin, lost two jurors Wednesday after they said Minneapolis’ $27 million civil settlement tainted their view of the murder trial.
Publicity over the settlement threatens to upend the trial with Judge Peter Cahill planning to decide by Friday whether the case should be halted or moved to another court in response to motions from Chauvin’s attorneys. Attorneys said the city’s unusual decision to announce the settlement just as the criminal trial begins could prevent Chauvin from receiving a fair hearing.
“It is very difficult for Mr. Chauvin to get a fair trial. It already was an uphill battle given that the video of the arrest had went viral and was seen worldwide,” Christa J. Groshek, a former public defender and owner and managing attorney of Groshek Law PA in Minneapolis, said.
“Now that the City of Minneapolis, the mayor and some council members have publicly commented about the ‘justice’ that was served by the settlement—the largest in state history—prior the criminal court matter being resolved, makes it almost impossible for Mr. Chauvin to be afforded ‘due process.’ I am stunned by the City’s decision.”
Nine jurors had been seated prior to Wednesday, but two said they couldn’t be impartial after hearing about the city’s deal with Floyd’s family. Defense attorney Eric Nelson had argued Monday and Tuesday that the city’s announcement could prejudice potential jurors against Chauvin, a former police officer filmed kneeling on Floyd’s neck last May.
Minneapolis March 12 announced the agreement to settle a civil suit from Floyd’s family over his death. The $27 million agreement marks the largest pretrial civil rights settlement in U.S. history, according to the Floyd family’s attorney Benjamin Crump.
Cahill said Chauvin’s lawyers had raised legitimate concerns, and he wished “city officials would stop talking about this case so much.” Cahill Wednesday re-interviewed the jurors seated prior to the settlement’s announcement to ensure it didn’t affect their perception of the case.
“Any potential juror who is aware of this large settlement will likely view it as a clear acknowledgment by the city of wrong doing on the part of the officers involved,” Julie Rendelman of The Law Offices of Julie Rendelman, LLC, a criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor, said. “Even though the standard in proving a civil claim is much lower than in a criminal setting, it’s inevitable that this settlement could sway jurors in favor of the prosecution before the facts are even presented.
Footage of then-officer Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck last May prompted calls to hold him and other officers on the scene—who are slated to be tried later this year—criminally responsible. Chauvin is facing three counts: second-degree murder, manslaughter, and third-degree murder.
If the trial moves forward and Chauvin is convicted, the defense could appeal on the grounds that the jury was tainted by news of the settlement, said David LaBahn, president and CEO of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.
“In previous criminal cases I’ve worked on, I’ve always asked on the civil side, please don’t do anything. Let’s get the criminal case resolved, especially if we win the criminal case. So why the city did it when they did, causing all the publicity and the fact that it’s the largest ever—yeah, it’s caused a problem,” LaBahn said.
“Now, potential jurors are saying, ‘oh yeah, I read about the city’s $27 million settlement,’ but the police officer is still supposed to be presumed innocent? Yeah, that’s a hard one.”
Prospective jurors were questioned about any influence the settlement would have on their view of the case Monday and Tuesday, leading some to be excused.
The prosecution had urged for the jury selection to continue.
“All I can say to the court is that there are some things that the state of Minnesota and this prosecution team can control and there are some things that the state cannot and does not control,” Minnesota Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank said March 15.
“We can control the witnesses we call. We can control the evidence that we bring in. We can control the motions. But, we cannot and do not control the civil aspect of the case. We cannot and do not control the city council. And we certainly cannot and do not control the news cycle.”