(Reuters) – A Minnesota judge began seating jurors on Tuesday in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis policeman facing murder and manslaughter charges for his role in the death of George Floyd during an arrest that caused an outcry around the world.
Judge Peter Cahill of the Hennepin County district court did so over the objections of state prosecutors, who say the high-stakes trial should not begin until a higher court resolves how many criminal charges Chauvin should face.
The prosecutors asked the Minnesota Court of Appeals on Monday, originally scheduled to be the first day of jury selection, to order Cahill to delay the trial, which has involved barricading parts of downtown Minneapolis for fear of civil unrest.
“There is no need for this kind of uncertainty in any case, let alone a case of this magnitude,” the prosecutors from the Minnesota attorney general’s office wrote in their petition to the appeals court.
It was not clear whether the higher court would intervene, and Cahill said he believed he had jurisdiction to proceed unless he was ordered otherwise.
The court mailed prospective jurors an unusually detailed 16-page questionnaire last year asking them what they know about Floyd’s death, and asking for their opinions on the Black Lives Matter movement.
Cahill called in six potential jurors, who have been promised anonymity for the duration of the trial, asking them if they knew any of the parties involved. Chauvin, dressed in a light gray suit, a blue shirt, a dark tie and a black face mask, briefly stood when his lawyer introduced him to the panel.
The judge and lawyers then sent out the group and called potential jurors in one at a time for questioning about possible biases. Chauvin’s lawyers have up to 15 peremptory challenges by which they can exclude a juror without having to cite a reason, while the prosecutors have nine.
The first potential juror conceded that she did not speak English well and wrote that she wanted to be on the jury because she would like to give her “opinion on the unjust death of George Floyd.”
Chauvin’s lawyers used up one of their peremptory challenges and she was dismissed.
The clear plexiglass screens arranged around the court as a precaution against the novel coronavirus were then adjusted after Cahill realized potential jurors could be seen as a faint reflection on the video broadcast of proceedings.
The second potential juror, who appeared to be white, described himself as a chemist working in an environmental testing laboratory who said he “somewhat disagreed” with the assertion that Minneapolis police generally use disproportionate force against Black people.
He said he supported the Black Lives Matter movement, saying he understood it to mean that “all lives matter equally.”
Cahill told him soon after that he would be the first juror to be seated.
THREE WEEKS FOR JURY SELECTION
The trial is seen as a landmark case on police violence against Black people in the United States, a country where police officers are almost never found to be criminally responsible for killing civilians, including in cases where the suspected crime is minor or the suspect is unarmed.
The trial on charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter had been scheduled to begin on Monday. But the judge was stymied by an 11th-hour ruling by the Minnesota Court of Appeals on Friday that ordered him to reconsider the request by prosecutors to reinstate a third charge of third-degree murder.
Lawyers for Chauvin, 44, asked the state Supreme Court on Monday to prevent the additional charge being applied.
He was released from jail on a $1 million bond last October and is being tried in a courtroom in the Hennepin County Government Center, a tower in downtown Minneapolis now ringed with barbed-wire fencing and concrete barricades for fear of disruption by protesters.
Chauvin, who is white, and three other police officers were fired the day after the deadly arrest on May 25 on suspicion that Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, used a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes at the Cup Foods grocery store.
Hundreds of anti-racism demonstrators chanted in the streets around the courthouse on Monday, blocking traffic. A small number of soldiers called in from the Minnesota National Guard watched from a distance.
The judge has set aside three weeks for jury selection alone, mindful of the difficulties finding impartial Minneapolitans in a case that has convulsed the nation. The image of the victim — a selfie of Floyd smiling faintly — has become an international icon of racial justice.
Chauvin would face up to 40 years in prison if convicted on the most serious charge. His lawyers say he properly followed the training he was given by the Minneapolis police department.
(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in Minneapolis; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Grant McCool)