During jury selection in the Derek Chauvin trial, a potential juror said that if she was chosen as a juror, she knew that her verdict would be judged unfairly by people who had never seen the evidence presented during the trial. People often second guess verdicts in high-profile cases—remember O.J.?
In the Chauvin case, however, haven’t most of us watched the videos? We’ve read about the numerous complaints made against Chauvin during his career, and we know that four medical examiners declared George Floyd’s death a homicide. So, what, exactly, is there to decide?
One of my lawyer friends often speaks of “facts of the world,” and “facts of the trial,” which are very different. One example of a “fact of the world” is that Chauvin had multiple complaints against him, which the state wanted to introduce as evidence during the trial. The defense argued that those incidents were not relevant, and the judge ruled that most, but not all, of them will not be admissible (allowed) during the trial. Because most of those incidents will not be evidence in the case, they will not be “facts of the trial.”
The defense wanted to introduce evidence of Floyd’s previous contact with the criminal legal system and his history of drug use. The state objected and the judge ruled (said) that this information is not admissible, which means that none of this information will become “facts of the trial.”
Neither side is calling the two medical examiners hired by the family. This means, that although many in the public have read their conclusions about the cause of George Floyd’s death, their opinions will not become “facts of the trial” because they won’t be called as witnesses.
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One critical aspect of a lawyer’s preparation for trial is to attempt to shape the case in a way that is most favorable to their side. Lawyers do this by filing motions (requests) to keep out or get in evidence. For example, Chauvin’s lawyer filed a motion raising 27 issues for the judge to decide, including a request that the jury not hear evidence about Chauvin’s tax charges in Washington County.
The prosecution agreed to this request because that case isn’t relevant to whether Chauvin is guilty of the three offenses with which he is charged. While the public knows of Chauvin’s other charges, this information will not be presented to the jury which would make it a “fact of the trial.”
Those who are selected for this jury will be instructed that they must base their verdict on the “facts of the trial,” along with the instructions given to them by the judge. This explains why many of the questions asked during jury selection focus on whether potential jurors can set aside their knowledge of “facts of the world” and any opinions based on them. This also explains why the public’s verdict, based on “facts of the world,” may differ from the verdict of the jury.
Once the “facts of the trial” are in evidence, through witnesses and exhibits, the lawyers will make their closing arguments. The judge will then instruct the jury on the law, while each juror either listens or reads along with the packet of instructions they are given. The judge will tell them to alert the deputy guarding their privacy (from outside the room) if they have any questions.
How the legislature chooses to define each crime is another reason why second-guessing the verdict can be unfair. For example, how would the public choose to define third-degree murder—depraved mind? The judge will tell them that to convict Chauvin of third-degree murder, the jurors must determine, beyond a reasonable doubt, whether he, “evinced a depraved mind, without regard for human life.” What, exactly, does that mean?
In my experience, jurors frequently have questions about the law. In this case, I think the odds are pretty good that they will want help to define a depraved mind. If jurors do have a question, the lawyers must come back to the courtroom, with the jurors, where the judge reads the question publicly. The process of having everyone return can take some time.
The problem is that if they ask for help defining “depraved mind,” the judge will simply read the same instruction again. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve avoided eye contact with jurors as they’ve left the courtroom to deliberate after waiting for an answer they never got. I’m pretty sure they wanted to thank us—for nothing.
Mary Moriarty was a public defender for 30 years, most recently for Hennepin County. She welcomes readers’ responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.