Josh MarcusSat, 27 March 2021, 4:09 pm
Jury selection concluded last week in the closely watched trial of Derek Chauvin, the white former Minneapolis police officer charged with murdering George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by pressing his knee onto his neck for minutes during an arrest last May.
Barring any jurors dropping out, the panel currently comprises mostly white people, according to the court, with nine white people, four Black people, and two mixed race people filling out the roster of 12 jurors and three potential alternates.
Constitutionally, people on trial are guaranteed a right to a jury of their peers, but what that means in practice is often complicated and highly significant, especially in cases where questions of race and racism are a central theme.
Given the often racially biased trends in the criminal justice system at large, different groups might have totally different levels of trust or identification towards a police officer or a Black man being detained, and studies have shown that the racial composition of juries has a strong effect on conviction rates.
“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,” Wesleyan University’s Sonali Chakravarti, who’s studied the role of race in jury selection, recently told NPR.
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“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,” she added.
In this case, even as the prosecution and defence wrangled over selecting a mutually agreeable jury—scrutinising and sometimes striking potential candidates after questions about support for the Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter movements, as well as their opinions about policing and systematic bias—the jury that resulted actually slightly over-represented Black people, who make up about 20 per cent of Minneapolis’ population.
Though it’s also worth noting that Minneapolis’s Black population is also vastly over-represented in who Minneapolis police use violence against, so a jury reflecting the overall population doesn’t necessarily mean they are Mr Floyd’s peers in a meaningful sense. A New York Times analysis found that nearly 60 percent of the subjects of police use of force in the city are Black.
As juror questionnaires went out across Hennepin County, Minnesota, earlier this year, many of the questions were deeply tied to race and politics, asking candidates whether thought “discrimination is not as bad as the media makes it out to be,” or supported Black Lives Matter, as well as asking about their media consumption habits and past experience with law enforcement. It’s illegal to disqualify a juror solely for their race, but many of these questions function as proxies for race in American politics.
Once the trial began, how people understood race and policing became one of the central questions determining who would serve on the jury, and jurors expressing a range of opinions on the subject made it to the bench.
Juror 55, whose name is confidential like all those involved, is a white woman, and said in court she had a somewhat unfavourable view of Black Lives Matter, arguing, “All lives matter to me. It doesn’t matter who they are or what they are.” Juror 52, a Black man in his 30s, strongly supports the movement, and told the court, “Black lives just want to be treated as equals and not killed or treated in an aggressive manner simply because they are black.” Another juror said he supports the Blue Lives Matter Movement.
Local activists took particular issue with the treatment of Juror 76, a Black man who once lived in the neighbourhood where Mr Floyd was killed. He said part of his interest in serving on the jury would come down to being a part of a criminal justice system often biased against people like him.
“Because me, as a Black man, you see a lot of Black people get killed and no one’s held accountable for it, and you wonder why or what was the decision,” he said. “So, with this, maybe I’ll be in the room to know why,” he added.
The defence struck him from the case, citing a bias against police, and state prosecutors didn’t challenge the decision.
“We have a Black man who was probably in the best position to judge the case being excluded,” Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil rights attorney and head of a community activism organisation called Wayfinder Foundation, said at the time.
The decision to exclude Juror 76 was a “huge slap in the face” that “just underscores why people believe there is systemic racism at work within these judicial processes,” she added.
And no matter what the racial composition of a jury, it’s no guarantee of a result favouring one race or the other.
In 2019, a jury that was half people of colour convicted Mohamed Noor, a Somali-American former Minneapolis police officer, of killing Justine Ruszczyk, a white woman who called 911 in 2017 to report a possible sexual assault. (Mr Noor is appealing the case).
The same goes for having people of colour leading the prosecution in cases alleging police brutality. Last year, Kentucky attorney general Daniel Cameron, decided not to bring any charges against police officer directly related to their fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor, whom was accidentally killed in her sleep as part of a police drug raid.
His office has, however, urged that the trial of one officer for firing stray bullets into a nearby apartment remain in “large and diverse” Jefferson County, which includes the city of Louisville, in a nod to the role race plays in the trial and jury process.
The case against Mr Chauvin is being led by Minnesota attorney general Keith Ellison, a former congressman and the state’s first African-American attorney general. Arguments begin on Monday 29 March.