3.17.2021 Reflecting on My First Day in Court During the Derek Chauvin Trial

My grandma was infatuated with Thurgood Marshall (#MrJusticeHimself) and loved Perry Mason.  Watching countless episodes influenced me so much as a kid that I thought I’d grow up to be a lawyer fighting for justice and changing the world.  I never fulfilled that childhood dream, but I was in court on 3/17/2021 attending the Derek Chauvin trial as part of the news reporter pool.  Never could I have imagined I would be sitting in the Hennepin County Courthouse as an independent journalist dictating historical events to my peers as they occurred.

With all the attention on this case, I knew there would be security, but I must admit the whole process of gaining access to the courtroom was a bit unnerving.  By now you’ve all seen the concrete barriers around the court building, the 12-foot fencing, the barb wire and razor wire.  The building is further secured by the National Guard, Hennepin County Sheriff officers and plain clothes police officers.  They are armed with semi-automatic rifles.  It seems like overkill to me.  So how odd it felt to be in such a fortified space and then be calmly asked for my credentials.  I waited patiently as they searched for my name.  Once found, I was allowed to pass through the exterior gate.  Upon entering the building, it was a quick escalator ride up a single floor.  It took only another 250 steps or so before I faced another security measure.  This time I had to remove my belt, pull out my pen, my phone or any other metal object.  Once through the metal detector, I reached out my hand to press the elevator button and then rode up to the 18th floor.  All alone, I kept saying to myself, "This is the moment you've been waiting for."  I was starting to feel some ease.  But wouldn’t you know it, upon leaving the elevator I was met with yet another checkpoint to my left.  I was again asked my name and then finally given a pass to the courtroom.

I was taught from an early age that “if you go to work early, you’re on time; if you go on time, you're late; and if you go late, you're fired.”  I was there plenty early.  I wanted time to familiarize myself with the surroundings and calm my nerves.  In my 8 years of reporting, I had never done anything like this.  I needed to be at the top of my game to not only serve my journalistic peers but also the community.  Taking accurate notes and then communicating it clearly as it’s happening live takes a lot of concentration and multi-tasking.  So for me, it was a debut I was determined to do well.

I sat pondering the enormity of the task in front of me.  I was fidgety.  To pass time I reached for my phone, but cell phone use was prohibited.  I had already reviewed my notes about some of the key players, including background information on Judge Cahill, Chauvin's attorney Eric Nelson, and obviously Chauvin himself.  I thought to myself, “so now what?”  I got up to go to the bathroom.  To my surprise upon exiting, I met face-to-face with Derek Chauvin, his attorney, his assistant attorney and three Hennepin County sheriffs.  Derek Chauvin looked at me as if he had seen a ghost.  I don’t think anyone was expecting a proud black man dressed in a suit and tie, a Coach man's bag over my shoulder, Malcolm X glasses and a kufi (a Muslim head cover for men) as the assigned correspondent for that day.  But hey, I was just being true to myself!  I simply nodded for them to go into the courtroom ahead of me.

After the judge arrived and everyone was seated, the jurors who had already been selected joined by Zoom and were asked if the $27 million settlement that the George Floyd family had received impacted their opinions.  A few of the jurors hadn’t heard about it.  One said his girlfriend had mentioned it, but that it would not change his mind in any way.  One of the jurors felt he could no longer be impartial, so he was removed.  Juror #44 was shocked by the amount and surprised at the timing of the settlement (before the defendant was proven innocent or guilty).  Even though she hesitated when asked serious questions, she was not removed.  In my mind, this was very concerning.

Next up, new potential jurors were in-person to be questioned one-by-one.  Just before noon they were allowed to take a break, except for Juror #76, who was asked to stay back.  He was a tall, black man.  He reminded me of a mellow uncle.  I imagined him hanging out at a family BBQ, laid back, quiet and cool.  He seemed well-educated, approximately 45-53 years old.  While waiting his turn, his legs were shaking as if he was nervous.  But upon taking the stand he was calm and listened intently to whatever the judge said to him.  The judge questioned him about his knowledge of events surrounding George Floyd.  As with other jurors, he was asked his opinion about the settlement and if it would deter him from making a fair decision, and he stated, “no.”  The judge asked if there was anything that would prevent him from spending the night, and he replied in a serious tone, “My wife.”  He explained his dedication to being there for her, as she suffers from serious back issues.  The judge asked if there was anything else, and he said his birthday was in April.  Everyone chuckled.  Next Eric Nelson asked if they were to meet outside of the courtroom, what would he come to learn about him.  He responded, “I am a quiet person and I love basketball.”  He was asked about his favorite team, to which he replied, “The Chicago Bulls.”  When asked how he felt about this case, he said, “I have mixed emotions.”  He explained that the case carries a prominent weight in history, no matter what the outcome, for either way, someone is going to be upset about the verdict.  Mr. Nelson asked why he said that.  To paraphrase, he answered:  As a black man, I want to know why black people are not getting justice, and why police officers are not being held accountable for their reactions to black men.  He was also asked if he ever served on a jury, to which he replied, “Yes, in the early 2000s.”  During questioning he stated he’d be able to make a fair decision, emphasizing the way to do so is by listening to both sides of the story.  He was also confident he could tell if a person is telling the truth or not by looking them in the eyes and watching their movement.  He further went on to say he could apply the law even if he didn’t necessarily agree with it and would be able to justify that to his family and others.  When asked about the impact of the Black Lives Matters movement in his community, he referred to the protests for Trayvon Martin.  He said it didn’t make much difference because people threw their fists up for a while but then went back to their normal lives.  When asked if the media portrays white people and black people differently, he replied, “Yes.”  He explained that he faces racism every day as a black man.  He pointed out that when black people commit a crime, they are often bruised and battered, while white people get treated differently and with a slap on the wrist.  When asked why it would be important for him to serve on this jury, he said it would allow him to tell people the truth as to why Derek Chauvin is found guilty or innocent.

What struck me about Juror #76 was his straight-from-the-heart, forthcoming answers.  He did not try to sugarcoat anything.  He was honest about his own brother’s conviction and described having asked him why he did it.  He understood his brother committed a crime and therefore had to do the time.  He was so honest about things he even blurted out his previous address near George Floyd square.  In so many words, he had nothing to hide.  He wasn’t even bothered when he was reminded that there are millions of people watching the live feed.

Having served on a jury previously, he understood how one must put personal feelings aside and stick to the facts.  He seemed ideal to do so again.  So why was he dismissed?  Having served his country in the Army, this man was good enough to participate in our wars, but he was not considered good enough to serve a civic duty to determine whether or not an unarmed man, calling for his mama, telling the police that he cannot breathe, for eight minutes and 46 seconds, is guilty or not of murder.  Dismissing a man like this raises serious questions about our justice system.

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