State Insists Chauvin Jury Was ‘Impartial,’ Mocks His Appeal - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
State Insists Chauvin Jury Was ‘Impartial,’ Mocks His Appeal
Protester in New York City, March 8, 2021 (lev radin/Shutterstock)

Said Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. of the Atlanta jury that convicted Leo Frank of murdering a 13-year-old female employee in 1913, “Mob law does not become due process of law by securing the assent of a terrified jury.” Frank was Jewish. The jurors were not necessarily anti-Semitic, but they had good reason to be terrified of the mobs that were. After Georgia Gov. John Slaton commuted Frank’s sentence from death to life imprisonment, the mobs stormed the prison, abducted Frank, and hanged him. Slaton and his wife were forced to leave the state.

The Minneapolis jurors in the April 2021 trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin had as much reason to be terrified as did the Frank jurors in Atlanta. As the world knows, Chauvin stood accused of murder in the May 2020 death of George Floyd. On April 25 of this year, attorney William Mohrman, in his brief to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, argued that Chauvin could not have hoped to get a fair trial in an environment as fraught with fear as that of Minneapolis circa 2021. By denying Chauvin a change of venue, he continued, the district court denied his client the right to an “impartial jury” as guaranteed in the Sixth Amendment.

In some ways, America was a freer country in 1915 than it is today. Beyond Georgia, many of the nation’s newspapers expressed their horror at the turn of events in the Frank case. In 2021, not even the major conservative media dared to question the prosecution in the trials of Chauvin and his three fellow officers. As to the mainstream media, they had not been this eager to convict a presumed killer since the arrest of Charles Manson.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison and his cohorts know they have the wind at their backs. The Respondent’s Brief they filed on Sept. 7 reflects that cockiness. They openly mocked Chauvin and his team, dismissing out of hand the defense’s concerns “that the notoriety of Chauvin’s crimes somehow prevented him from receiving a fair trial.” Said Ellison et al. with a straight face, “The District Court properly exercised its discretion over where, when, and how to hold these important proceedings, and Chauvin received a fair trial by an impartial jury.”

In its brief, the State not only denied the obvious but also made an extra effort to insult “Chauvin,” the named defendant throughout. Facing 22 years in prison, Chauvin did not need to hear the State make snarky asides like “That is rich” in response to one of his arguments.

In a just world, Chauvin would get a new trial in a venue far removed from the mobs of Minneapolis. The State argued that there was “no meaningful advantage to be gained from holding trial elsewhere” given that everyone everywhere knew about the case, but that argument is pure red herring. The real question was not what the jurors knew about Floyd’s death but what they feared from potential vigilantes.

As Mohrman noted, in the days immediately following the trial, Minneapolis endured the second most destructive riot in American history, causing some $500 million in property damage. Serious threats were made against a number of the officials involved in the case. To protect the Hennepin County Government Center, the State surrounded it with barbed wire and stationed National Guard troops at the ready. The jurors were aware of all of this. Numerous prospective jurors openly confessed to their fear of reprisal if the verdict displeased the mobs. Juror 92 wondered: “[W]hat would happen to me if I was a juror after? If somebody found out or—that was my main concern.”

Although prospective jurors were screened during voir dire, their testimony was audible as a result of live TV coverage. This caused problems for Juror 27 given his distinctive accent. Eleven days after his selection to the jury, he asked to be removed for safety concerns. When ordered back for additional voir dire, he testified: “I found out that a lot of people at my job have listened to me through the news … and I don’t feel comfortable … my wife doesn’t feel safe and people have called me out of state.” He did not want his identity revealed.

Judge Peter Cahill did little to reassure him, saying, “All of us on this case whose names are out in the public understand the concerns,” an unwitting concession that witnesses as well as jurors had reason to be afraid. Wrote Mohrman, “Finally, the Court said if it removed Juror 27, the Court would have to remove all the jurors.”

The State blithely dismissed Mohrman’s concerns, arguing that the district court promised it would only “release juror names when it’s safe to do so for the jurors.” Left unsaid was that it would never be safe for a juror who might hang the trial. In addition, Cahill offered Juror 27 the chance to speak with the sheriff’s office about a security audit of his home to get “some reassurance.” The State concluded, “That careful trial management deserves praise.” Eddie Haskell could not have said it better.

On April 11, 2021, while the trial was in progress, a white policewoman in nearby Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, accidentally shot and killed a fleeing black man. Not being sequestered, the jurors could not help but be aware of the shooting and the protests that followed. On April 12, Chauvin’s team moved to sequester the jury given that Hennepin County was now under curfew. Cahill said in denying the motion: “The jurors all are aware and were concerned about their safety because of what happened in May of 2020, the civil unrest that followed there…. but I don’t think that should heighten the juror’s concern, I think it’s probably the same as it was before.” The “same” was already enough to ensure a terrified jury.

Among the protesters was Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.). When asked what people should do if the Floyd jury did not return a guilty verdict, Waters answered: “We got to stay on the street. And we’ve got to get more active, we’ve got to get more confrontational. We’ve got to make sure that they know that we mean business.” The State dismissed the defense’s concerns about Waters’ call to action in a footnote.

On April 14, before the jury was sequestered, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, fearing a hung jury or a not-guilty verdict, began deploying National Guard troops around Minneapolis and St. Paul. The jurors knew why the troops were there. Juror 52 Brandon Mitchell welcomed the drama. On his voir dire questionnaire, shared with me by filmmaker Maryam Henein, Mitchell wrote, “This is the most historic case of my lifetime, would love to be a part of it.”

The defense should never have allowed Mitchell on the jury. As they learned later, he was a Black Lives Matter activist. Months before the trial, he traveled to Washington, D.C., to participate in the National Action Network’s “Commitment March: Get Your Knee Off Our Necks.” A picture of him was posted in social media in which he was wearing a T-shirt that read “Get Your Knee Off Our Necks — BLM” and a BLM cap.

On his questionnaire, Mitchell had answered “no” to every question asking whether he had participated in any protests about George Floyd or police brutality. Sniffed the State in response: “There was a time for Chauvin to investigate theories about Juror 52: voir dire. This Court should not permit Chauvin to belatedly latch onto inconsequential information and manufacture a claim of juror misconduct after he lost at trial.”

When Chauvin was convicted on July 20, Minneapolis celebrated, and Mitchell was quick to take his victory lap. As he told one local radio station, he saw jury duty as a way “to correct some wrongs and try and spark change.” He also noted that had it not been for one juror, the jury would have reached a verdict in 20 minutes.

Juror 96, Lisa Christiansen, an alternate, understood why the jury was eager to convict. Although she had expressed fears for her safety during the voir dire, those fears vanished with the verdict. She invited the media to her Brooklyn Center home, telling them, “I was concerned for my safety to a point … depending on which way it went.” As Christiansen explained, her place of business had been broken into during the riots, and she “was just hoping that wasn’t going to happen again and I was relieved that [the jurors] came to the verdict they did.”

The failure to change venue was one of many examples of the “error, misconduct and prejudice” that the Chauvin defense believe pervaded the trial. Chauvin and his fellow officers never had a chance, and, barring an act of judicial heroism, they never will.

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