A new trial for Chauvin is not likely to be granted—Here’s why

legal insights
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Derek Chauvin’s defense recently filed a motion asking Judge Peter Cahill for a new trial. This is not an appeal, and it won’t be granted, but it is a preview of the issues we can expect to hear the defense argue when they do appeal.

After Chauvin is sentenced, he has a right to file an appeal before the Minnesota Court of Appeals. The appellate court will only consider exhibits admitted at trial, and testimony and argument of lawyers that is in the trial transcript.

It is common for the defense to file a motion for a new trial after a conviction. By rule, the motion must be filed within 15 days of the guilty verdict. The defense motion was clearly rushed because it lacks specific examples of allegations such as, “pervasive, prejudicial prosecutorial misconduct.” Chauvin’s lawyer did ask for more time to “thoroughly brief“ the issues, but the judge will have to decide whether to grant that request.  The prosecution will have the opportunity to respond.   

Most of the issues raised in the defense motion were argued before, and during, the trial. This means that the judge has already ruled against the defense. Some of those issues include requests to: 

  • Change venue “moving the trial someplace else in Minnesota.)
  • Sequester the jury (keep them together) during the trial, and not just during deliberations.
  • Declare a mistrial because of publicity before and during the trial.
  • Allow Morries Hall to testify or admit (let the jury hear) his statements to police.
  • Limit the state from presenting too many witnesses on use of force.
  • Give the jury the defense proposed instructions on use of force and the three charges.

Because Judge Cahill already ruled against the defense on these motions, the request for a new trial would require him to acknowledge that he was mistaken.  As I mentioned before, that is not going to happen.   

The one new ground alleged by the defense is juror misconduct. The defense, however, cites no facts to support its claim that, “the jury committed misconduct, felt threated or intimidated, felt race-based pressure during the proceedings, and/or failed to adhere to instructions during deliberations.” My guess is that the defense is trying to raise the juror misconduct issue to make it part of the record, which could be reviewed by the court of appeals.  

Related Story: Derek Chauvin’s attorney files motion for a new trial

Without additional, more specific, information the judge is unlikely to grant the Schwartz hearing, which the defense has requested.  Schwartz is simply the name of the Minnesota case that outlines the process a court must follow to investigate alleged juror misconduct. Lawyers and judges are not allowed to intrude into the thought processes of jurors when they deliberated. In fact, a juror cannot be asked to testify as to any statement made during the deliberations, or the reasoning behind the juror’s decision.  Exploration into the juror’s deliberations are off-limits with very few exceptions.     

The court can investigate whether outside, prejudicial information came to the jury’s attention, or whether the jury was subject to threats of violence or outside influences to reach a verdict. The juror who has given interviews, Brandon Mitchell, has specifically said that the jurors felt no influence from outside pressures.  He described the process of watching video of George Floyd dying over and over as being emotionally draining and that he just wanted to go home and ignore the outside world.  The judge is not going to grant a Schwartz hearing without any factual support for the allegations in the defense motion.

The judge can investigate whether a juror “gave false answers” on voir dire (jury selection) that “concealed prejudice or bias” toward a party.  The defense does not make this allegation, but there has been discussion about Mitchell’s attendance at a march in Washington, D.C., and one of his answers on his juror questionnaire.        

Jurors were asked whether they participated in protests about police use of force or police brutality.  Mitchell checked the “no” box.  But a picture has emerged of Mitchell at a march in August to commemorate the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s, “I Have A Dream” speech.  It is described as a civil rights march, advocating for voter’s rights, and an end to systemic racism, police brutality, and many other civil rights issues. 

I have read many, many juror questionnaires and people interpret questions in very different ways. Some read the question narrowly, others write a couple of paragraphs about irrelevant information “just in case.”  It’s understandable that Mitchell did not view his presence at a march in D.C., where he had never been, as a protest against police brutality, because it was about so much more. 

It also clear that his answer was not intended to “conceal his prejudice or bias” toward a party. The very next question on the questionnaire asked how favorable the juror’s views were about “Black Lives Matter.” Mitchell checked “Very Favorable.”  So, it should come as no surprise that he is wearing a BLM baseball cap in the picture at the march in Washington D.C. 

Without more detailed information about how a juror is alleged to have committed misconduct, I can’t see the judge granting the defense motion for a Schwartz hearing. This means that he will deny the motion for a new trial in its entirety.     

About Mary Moriarty

Mary Moriarty was a public defender for 30 years, most recently for Hennepin County. She welcomes readers' responses to mmoriarty@spokesman-recorder.com.

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