Gulp: Judge bounces two jurors from George Floyd homicide trial after city's settlement announcement

The jury changes today in the trial of Derek Chauvin do not bode well for the city of Minneapolis, or the state of Minnesota. Two previously seated jurors have told Judge Peter Cahill that the city council’s announcement of a $27 million settlement with the family of George Floyd predisposes them to think Chauvin is guilty.

The influence of extensive publicity again took center stage at the murder trial of fired Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on Wednesday, with two seated jurors dismissed amid an announcement that the city has agreed to pay George Floyd’s survivors $27 million.

The total number of jurors is down to seven after Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill removed two after they said they had heard about a federal lawsuit settlement reached last week. They admitted it would impact their ability to assure Chauvin of his constitutional right to be presumed innocent during the course of the trial. …

One of the dismissed jurors was a Hispanic man in his 20s who said news of the settlement “kind of confirms opinions that I already have.” The second dismissed juror, a white man in his 30s, said he was shocked by the size of the settlement.

“We’re gonna exercise extreme caution here,” Cahill said in dismissing him.

One has to wonder what other “extreme caution” will be necessary. According to the Star Tribune, Cahill has finished canvassing the other seven jurors previously selected by the prosecution and defense, so there probably won’t be any more removals. The rest of the voir dire of this panel, and any that might supplement it, will be more complicated now, however. Having two jurors admit to the impact of the settlement raises questions about just how much everyone else would be impacted by the publicity, especially in the city whose residents will have to pay that settlement.

The anger over that is one reason why Chauvin’s attorneys have renewed their motion for a change of venue. While Cahill denied a motion for more peremptory challenges for the defense as a remedy as well as another for sequestration of the jury during the trial, he pointedly left the venue issue on the table, as well as a continuance to deal with the fallout from the settlement. That decision will come on Friday, but a new issue arose overnight — the leak of plea-bargain negotiations last month in the New York Times:

Judge Cahill said he’ll consider everything he heard from the jurors when he makes his decision on whether to continue or change venues for the trial. He said he will make that decision on Friday.

“This is more data for the court to make that decision,” Cahill said.

Judge Cahill said Tuesday that while he’s concerned about the settlement announcement, he believes a report in the New York Times published last month about a potential plea bargain could be even more problematic.

“That is particularly problematic, and I said so, because of its impact on the presumption of innocence,” Judge Cahill said about the report. “The $27 million settlement is unfortunate, it is something to consider, but let’s face it, it’s not just a legal decision, that’s a political decision, and I think people realize that.”

I wrote about that story last month, noting that it seemed like a missed opportunity. It didn’t occur to me that it might be prejudicial, and that still seems to be a more remote issue than the city’s admission of liability to the tune of $27 million. If Cahill’s worried about the prejudicial impact of that story, however, then he will have to poll jurors all over again to determine whether the defense’s reported willingness to accept a murder plea would impact their impartiality on top of the settlement issue.

Judges rarely grant change-of-venue motions, but at some point Cahill might decide that the state and the feds have done too much to taint a Hennepin County jury pool to ensure a fair trial. Having two jurors admit that the settlement itself changed their minds after being otherwise cleared to serve is a rather big problem, especially on appeal if Chauvin ends up getting convicted.

By the way, the jury’s not the only issue Cahill faces this week:

Also on Cahill’s plate for a ruling this week is whether he should allow details from Floyd’s May 2019 arrest in Minneapolis. Cahill previously denied letting in testimony about the arrest, but opened the door Tuesday after hearing the defense’s arguments. The judge said he would rule Thursday on this legal issue.

In May 2019 and again on May 25, 2020, the day he died, Floyd swallowed drugs during his police encounters. In the earlier incident, captured on police body camera video, the drugs led to a “hypertensive emergency” and the 46-year-old Floyd’s hospitalization.

According to the evidence from the earlier arrest, Nelson said, a paramedic warned Floyd that his blood pressure was extremely high, and if he didn’t calm down, he was at risk of a heart attack or stroke. The cause of Floyd’s death will be a core issue at trial.

It’s almost guaranteed that Cahill will have to allow this testimony. The autopsy report noted the high level of fentanyl in Floyd’s system, and the defense will definitely argue that his death resulted from ingesting the drugs and not Chauvin’s knee on his neck. But if Cahill doesn’t allow it in, he might need to poll jurors all over again to see whether they’ve heard about this history.