MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Jury selection for a former Minneapolis police officer’s trial in George Floyd’s death faced a possible setback Wednesday, as the judge prepared to recall seven jurors to see if they have been tainted by news of a $27 million settlement for the Floyd family.
Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill was to question the jurors by video ahead of ordinary jury selection. The move came at the request of former officer Derek Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, who called the timing of last week’s announcement by city leaders in the middle of jury selection “profoundly disturbing” and “not fair.”
Nelson has also requested a delay in the trial, which Cahill is considering. Cahill has set opening statements for March 29 at the earliest, but dismissal of some of the jurors already seated could imperil that date.
Nine jurors had been seated through Tuesday, including five who are white, one who is multiracial, two who are Black and one who is Hispanic. The jurors include six men and three women and range in age from their 20s to their 50s. Fourteen people, including two alternates, are needed.
Chauvin is charged with murder and manslaughter in the May 25 death of Floyd, a Black man who was declared dead after Chauvin pressed his knee against his neck for about nine minutes. Floyd’s death, captured on a widely seen bystander video, set off weeks of sometimes-violent protests across the country and led to a national reckoning on racial justice.
On Tuesday, the two sides skirmished over whether evidence of Floyd’s 2019 arrest in Minneapolis should be allowed at trial.
The judge previously rejected Chauvin’s attempt to tell the jury about the arrest — a year before his fatal encounter with Chauvin — but heard fresh arguments Tuesday from both sides. He said he would rule on the request Thursday.
Nelson argued that new evidence makes the earlier arrest admissible: Drugs were found last December during a second search of the car Floyd was in, and were found in a January search of the squad car into which the four officers attempted to put Floyd.
He also argued the similarities between the encounters are relevant: Both times, as officers drew their guns and struggled to get Floyd out of the car, he called out for his mother, claimed he had been shot before and cried, and put what appeared to be pills in his mouth. Both searches turned up drugs in the cars. Officers noticed a white residue outside his mouth both times, although that has not been explained.
In the first arrest, several opioid pills and cocaine were found. An autopsy showed Floyd had fentanyl and methamphetamine in his system when he died.
“The similarities are incredible. The exact same behavior in two incidents, almost one year apart,” Nelson said.
Paramedics who examined Floyd in 2019 warned him that his blood pressure was dangerously high, putting him at risk for a heart attack or stroke, and took him to a hospital for examination. Nelson argued that shows Floyd knew that swallowing drugs might result in going to the hospital rather than jail.
But prosecutor Matthew Frank argued that evidence from the 2019 arrest was prejudicial. He called it “the desperation of the defense to smear Mr. Floyd’s character, to show that what he struggled with an opiate addiction like so many Americans do, is really evidence of bad character.”
And he argued that the only relevant thing in Floyd’s death is how he was handled by Chauvin and the other officers.
“What these officers were dealing with is what they were responsible for,” Frank said. “What is relevant to this case is what they knew at the scene at this time.”
Cahill said he would stop the defense “very quickly” from suggesting at trial that Floyd didn’t deserve sympathy because he used drugs.
“You don’t just dirty up someone who has died in these circumstances as a defense,” he said. But he said he would weigh the defense’s argument that alleged drug use during the 2019 arrest that led to “a hypertensive emergency” is relevant to what may have caused Floyd’s death in 2020.
“I think that’s, that’s the only relevance I see,” Cahill said.
One legal expert said he saw legitimate grounds for Cahill to allow the 2019 arrest at trial given the evidence found in the follow-up searches of the cars. But he said it also could unfairly prejudice the jury against Floyd.
“The problem is, it’s not possible to do one without doing the other,” said Ted Sampsell-Jones, a professor at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law. “The evidence does have some legitimate relevance, but it also carries a significant potential for unfair prejudice. It’s a difficult evidence problem that Judge Cahill will have to carefully balance.”
Michael Brandt, a local defense attorney, said the new evidence would bolster the argument that Floyd had a “propensity for ingesting pills when being arrested” and that he knew that it could be a way to stay out of jail. That might be enough for jurors to pass up convicting Chauvin on the most serious charges, Brandt said.
The question of Floyd’s drug use has played out in jury selection, with prosecutors gauging prospective jurors’ attitudes.
One person picked for the jury, a Black man in his 30s, said he didn’t judge drug users more harshly than others.
“My opinion on them is no different than my opinion on anybody else. It’s just something they are struggling with, they are possibly trying to get through,” he said.
Another, a white man in his 30s, said he’d heard news stories that Floyd may have been under the influence of drugs, but when asked what he thought about it said he didn’t think it should affect the case.
“Whether you are under the influence of drugs doesn’t determine whether you should be living or dead,” he said.
Three other former officers face an August trial in Floyd’s death on charges of aiding and abetting second-degree murder and manslaughter.