Read: Why Minneapolis was the breaking point
Another limit of the more capacious approach to jury selection came with Juror 120, who was dismissed not for his critique of the legal system but for an analogy that dominated his reaction to the video of Floyd’s death. During Juror 120’s initial questioning by the judge, he started expressing his uncertainty about whether he could truly be fair in the case. He turned to the judge and said, “Do you have any brothers?” “I do,” Judge Cahill replied. The juror went on to describe an analogy that kept coming to mind when he thought about Chauvin. “So you’re tussling with your brothers. If one of your brothers says, ‘I give up, etc., etc.,’ you stop, right? ... You have to stop when someone says, ‘No more.’” Judge Cahill suddenly grew still, touched his mask, and replied: “As the little brother to three older brothers, I know exactly what you are talking about.” Then, almost apologetically, he added, “I am going to release you.” No further discussion of the case, the police, or Black Lives Matter was necessary for the judge to decide that this juror was unfit for the case.
In many cases, a disqualifying life experience involves a prospective juror’s firsthand witnessing of police violence or coercive plea bargaining, for instance. In the case of Juror 120, however, the issue almost appeared to be one of excessive moral clarity. It illustrates the paradoxical nature of jury service—and the expectations of the ideal juror. Juror 120’s moral clarity was what made him unfit for service. In other words, for a juror, moral clarity can conflict with the openness needed to fairly consider both verdicts. A juror who is too convinced of a defendant’s guilt before hearing the evidence, as Juror 120 seemed to be, cannot be a fair juror. But Judge Cahill recognized that jurors in this trial might hold views about the reality of systemic racism and its deep moral costs while still being able to perform their role as impartial jurors. The result might in fact be greater fairness and—perhaps—healing: A fair trial by jury may be one of the best ways to foster trust in the legal system.
Watching the three weeks of jury selection and hearing potential jurors speak about their pets and favorite sports teams, in addition to their perceptions of racial discrimination, I was reminded that jurors are called to serve precisely because of their lack of expertise in the law. They are not repeat players in the courtroom with incentives to reach a particular verdict. But this has it backwards: It is because of their distance from the work of the court that they are better able to understand what it means to feel the power of law enforcement as an external force in their lives and to determine its legitimacy. The jury in the Chauvin trial included a broader perspective of life experiences than is typical in America’s courtrooms, better fulfilling the ideal of why we have juries in the first place. During jury selection, the jurors who spoke about Black Lives Matter and the pattern of police violence in this country were unusually honest about who we, as Americans, have been. And, with their verdict, they showed us where we might yet be going.