Derek Chauvin Trial: Five Jurors Are Quickly Chosen

The quick pace of juror selection and an awaited ruling from the State Supreme Court means opening statements in Derek Chauvin’s trial are likely to begin on March 29 as scheduled.

Credit…Chandan Khanna/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

MINNEAPOLIS — A third-degree murder charge may be back on the table for Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged in the death of George Floyd, after a ruling from the Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday.

The decision, along with jury selection that has moved faster than expected, means the trial is unlikely to be delayed for weeks as had been threatened. Opening statements are scheduled for March 29, and five of the 12 jurors have been seated.

Mr. Chauvin is already facing the more serious charge of second-degree murder, which carries a maximum sentence of 40 years, as well as second-degree manslaughter. But prosecutors have been pushing to add third-degree murder, which carries a maximum sentence of 25 years.

Adding the charge would give jurors an additional avenue for a murder conviction if they decide that the evidence does not support a second-degree murder conviction.

For second-degree murder, sometimes called unintentional murder, prosecutors must prove that Mr. Chauvin was committing an underlying felony — in this case, assault — when Mr. Floyd died. Third-degree murder involves acting with “a depraved mind, without regard for human life.”

Judge Peter A. Cahill dismissed the charge last fall, but on Friday an appeals court ordered him to reconsider, and the State Supreme Court effectively upheld that order on Wednesday. Judge Cahill addressed the ruling briefly in court, saying it would be discussed in the morning.

Despite the uncertainty, Judge Cahill has proceeded with jury selection. Many experts said it would be next to impossible to find an impartial jury given the enormous publicity the case has generated. Some even said the trial would have to be moved outside the Twin Cities for it to be tried fairly, with the court setting aside three weeks to select 12 jurors and up to four alternates.

But after two days of probing prospective jurors, five have already been selected.

In a statement on Wednesday afternoon, Minnesota’s attorney general, Keith Ellison, whose office is prosecuting Mr. Chauvin, said: “We believe the charge of 3rd-degree murder is fair and appropriate. We look forward to putting it before the jury, along with charges of 2nd-degree unintentional murder and 2nd-degree manslaughter.”

Judge Cahill will now have to reconsider whether to add the third-degree murder charge. Last fall he dismissed it because he believed that the circumstances of Mr. Chauvin’s case did not fit. Historically, third-degree murder has been understood as an act that is dangerous to multiple people, not a single person — such as firing a weapon into a moving train. Third-degree murder has also been used to charge a drug dealer whose customer dies of an overdose.

But this year, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that the charge could be used in cases where only one person was in danger — as it was in the conviction of a police officer, Mohamed Noor, for a fatal on-duty shooting.

Prosecutors asked to reinstate the charge, but Judge Cahill refused, saying he was not bound by the higher court’s ruling because Mr. Noor could still appeal. The appeals court disagreed.

On Wednesday, in a second day of long conversations between lawyers and prospective jurors in the Chauvin case, the questions touched on divisive issues in contemporary America — such as racial justice protests and coronavirus restrictions — that were designed to reveal political biases.

One man, a Minnesota Vikings season-ticket holder, was asked about N.F.L. players who have protested racial injustice by taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem. He said he did not believe that the gesture — which had become a conservative rallying cry — disrespected the police or military because they serve to protect “our right to believe what we want to believe.”

The man, who is white, works in sales and appeared to be in his 30s, said he had an awakening about racial issues while studying the civil rights movement in college.

The man, identified as Juror 20, was seated on the jury despite one misgiving: He was supposed to get married on May 1 in Florida, when deliberations could still be taking place.

The jurors will remain anonymous throughout the trial to shield them from pressure and threats.

Like nearly every prospective juror questioned so far, Juror 20 had seen the viral video of Mr. Chauvin kneeling on Mr. Floyd’s neck as he gasped for breath. He reacted negatively, he said, but is open to hearing both sides. He said his negative reaction to seeing Mr. Floyd die on a street corner could be counterbalanced by learning why he was placed in custody.

“I assume when someone is in handcuffs they are in handcuffs for a reason,” he said.

The second person added to the jury on Wednesday was a Black man, an immigrant believed to be from West Africa who works in information technology and moved to the United States 14 years ago.

The man, Juror 27, said he came away with a negative impression of Mr. Chauvin after watching the video, but he acknowledged that he did not know all the facts. He said he supported the racial justice protests that erupted after the death of Mr. Floyd, but condemned the looting and burning of businesses.

He said that he had a “somewhat favorable” view of police officers, and that he wanted to serve on the jury because “it is a service to my community and my country.”

The question of whether the court would be able to seat a diverse jury has loomed over the proceedings. So far the jurors include three white men, one Black man and a woman of color.

Shaila Dewan and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs contributed reporting from New York.