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National

The Chauvin Trial Isn't Technically About Race — But Jury Selection For It Has Been

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Minneapolis, attorneys have spent the last two weeks working to seat a jury for the murder trial of Derek Chauvin. He's the former police officer who held his knee on George Floyd's neck. The case set off a global protest movement for racial justice. But in the courtroom, Chauvin's attorney has been telling potential jurors that this case is not about that movement.

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UNIDENTIFIED ATTORNEY #1: And you understand ultimately this trial is not about broader social issues.

SHAPIRO: And yet attorneys for both sides have spent most of the last two weeks asking jurors their views on exactly those social issues, from politics to policing to, most prominently, race.

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UNIDENTIFIED ATTORNEY #1: And with respect to Black Lives Matter...

UNIDENTIFIED ATTORNEY #2: What is your opinion of Blue Lives Matter?

UNIDENTIFIED ATTORNEY #3: Implicit bias.

UNIDENTIFIED ATTORNEY #1: Blacks and other minorities do not receive equal treatment as whites in the criminal justice system.

SHAPIRO: To understand why this has been such a focus in the courtroom, NPR's Adrian Florido tells us about the questioning of one potential juror.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Of the dozens of jurors who've been interviewed, juror 76 stands out. He's a Black man in his 30s or 40s. When Derek Chauvin's attorney Eric Nelson asks why he wants to serve on this jury, he says this.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: He 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.

FLORIDO: His answer suggests he's open to either acquitting or convicting, but Nelson needs to be sure.

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ERIC NELSON: And can you foresee yourself entering a not guilty vote?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: If the evidence was there and presented itself as that, yes, I could see myself doing that.

FLORIDO: If juror 76 had said no, the judge would have dismissed him for his inability to be impartial. But because he says yes, questioning continues. Nelson dives into the juror's answers on a questionnaire sent to hundreds of potential jurors. It asked about race, social justice, policing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NELSON: You were asked the question, discrimination is not as bad as the media makes it out to be. And you strongly disagreed with that.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Because being a Black man in America, I experience racism on a day-to-day basis.

NELSON: How do you feel that that would affect your ability to be a juror in this case?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Not at all.

FLORIDO: Attorneys for both sides get to strike a certain number of jurors without having to explain why. Their challenge with each juror is to decide, they're telling me they can be impartial, but do I believe them? Nelson continues his questioning of juror 76.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NELSON: The question was raised, the Minneapolis police officers are more likely to respond with force when confronting Black suspects than with dealing with white suspects, and you strongly agreed with that.

FLORIDO: The question is posed as a matter of opinion, though data from Minneapolis has shown that this is true. The juror says he used to live near where George Floyd was killed and remembers police often riding through the neighborhood after someone had been shot.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It was known for, like, the police to ride through the neighborhood with "Another One Bites The Dust." And, you know - and it's like they just - like, they antagonized us.

FLORIDO: Attorneys cannot dismiss someone based only on their race, but this juror's experiences rooted in his life as a Black man seem to worry Nelson. The juror tells him one last time he will be a fair juror.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: These are my opinions and how I feel about a situation. It's not whether someone's guilty or not, you know? It's like I have to see the information that's in front of me before I can just determine that.

FLORIDO: Nelson asks for a brief sidebar with the judge. When he comes back, he uses one of his strikes to dismiss the juror, citing his bias against the police. An attorney for the prosecution, Steve Schleicher, expresses concern.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVE SCHLEICHER: I don't believe that a prospective juror reflecting upon his actual life experience reflected any bias against anyone. He was simply reflecting on reality as he sees and perceives it every single day.

FLORIDO: But then the court moves on to the next potential juror, and a similar dance begins. This chess match has been playing out throughout jury selection. The prosecution has also struck white jurors it felt were too police-friendly or who expressed negative views of Black Lives Matter or racial justice protests. But Wesleyan University's Sonali Chakravarti, who's studied the role of race in jury selection, says in a case like this, it is more important for there to be more scrutiny when Black jurors are struck.

SONALI CHAKRAVARTI: We've seen that in this country that Black jurors are struck at a higher rate than other jurors, and that is a really a big problem.

FLORIDO: The central argument in this trial will be over what caused George Floyd's death. Was it Chauvin's knee or something else? Lawyers will offer competing theories. The jurors will have to decide who they believe, and their views on race will play a part. Chakravarti says the attorneys know that.

CHAKRAVARTI: The way jurors feel has to do with what stories they believe are possible and likely. And so race and how we understand race relations working can have a big impact on whether they see one story as plausible or not.

FLORIDO: So far, the jury in the Chauvin trial is shaping up to be more diverse than Minneapolis itself. About half of its members are non-white, including three Black men. Most of the jurors have said they understand the weight of their responsibility. The world is watching a trial many see as a test for who gets justice and who does not.

Adrian Florido, NPR News, Minneapolis.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIASMOS' "LOOPED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.