April 19, 2021

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Today’s special edition of Covering COVID-19 focuses entirely on the Derek Chauvin trial in Minnesota. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

More than 4,000 National Guard troops and police await the Chauvin trial verdict in Minnesota

About 3,000 National Guard troops and more than 1,000 police from all over Minnesota are awaiting the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial. The jury will get the case today.

Tensions are rising nationwide. Starting today, Washington, D.C., police will be working 12-hour shifts with no days off. Interestingly, a statement about this change did not mention protests and instead said, “In anticipation of potential First Amendment activities related to the outcomes of the Derek Chauvin trial, the Metropolitan Police Department will be fully activated with members on 12-hour shifts starting Monday, April 19, 2021 until further notice.”

Security is tightening at state capitols. State officials in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, say they will be ready to deploy quickly if needed.

The three charges Chauvin faces

Chauvin faces three charges. These charges will be spelled out in the jury instructions. The seemingly small differences in the legal language are critically important:

Chauvin could be found guilty of one charge but be acquitted of the others. He could, of course, also be found guilty or acquitted of all three. And it is possible the jury reaches no decision, at which time a judge could declare a mistrial. The Star Tribune does a good job of explaining more about the charges if you need detail.

Forbes includes this insightful quote:

“Nobody is going to be happy at the end of this case,” said Justin Hansford, a Howard University Law School professor and Black Lives Matter activist who runs the university’s Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center. “If Chauvin gets off, it’s going to be like a Rodney King situation,” Hansford said, referencing the 1992 riots in Los Angeles that followed a jury’s decision to acquit the officers who brutally beat King. “If he’s convicted, the prosecution’s case is that he’s a bad apple. Neither the defense nor the prosecution’s narrative is going to make the protesters happy.”

Is there a connection between the length of deliberation and trial outcome?

It is natural to wonder how long the jury might take to reach a verdict. Quick verdicts generally favor the defendant. As hours stretch on, it signals that jurors are taking evidence seriously and consider the evidence to have at least some validity.

This deep study of verdicts says the reason that convictions often take longer is that the burden of proof is on the prosecution.

Since the burden of proof is on the prosecution in a criminal trial and on the plaintiff in a civil dispute, juries that find in favor of the state (in criminal trials) or the plaintiff (in civil trials) may take longer on average. As a result, we suspect that cases that end up with a criminal conviction or a finding in favor of the plaintiff ought to take longer than those that end in an acquittal or a civil finding for the respondent.

Interestingly, the same study says juries take longer to decide cases that involve multiple charges. Civil cases, in which juries award damages, also take longer. The size of a jury also makes a difference. Six-person juries decide faster than 12-person juries. But the speeds at which juries decide most cases surprised me. The study found:

The average length of time in a 6-person jury case is only 81.5 minutes while a 12-person jury takes, on average, just over two hours to reach a conclusion (121.5 minutes.)

And cases involving severe crimes and crimes against people (rather than property crimes) take juries longer:

In criminal trials, juries that are considering charges having to do with crimes against a person (murder, rape, assault) will end up deliberating longer on average than a jury considering other, less severe, criminal charges (robbery, fraud, illicit card games, etc.).

A comparison of means test shows that crimes against persons do result in long jury deliberation times relative to crimes against property. The average time for a jury considering more severe charges is 136.3 minutes and the average length of time for less severe charges is 109.9 minutes.

As the New York Times points out:

It took a jury in Chicago less than eight hours in 2018 to convict Jason Van Dyke, a former Chicago police officer, of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm in the death of Laquan McDonald, a Black teenager who was carrying a knife but heading away from the police.

In the case of Mohamed Noor, the former Minneapolis police officer who fatally shot Justine Ruszczyk in 2017, jurors took 11 hours to reach a verdict, MPR News reported. They found him guilty of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter but not second-degree murder.

There are other examples to consider, including from in 2003, when a jury in Oakland, California, deliberated 55 days before acquitting three police officers accused of assaulting and falsely arresting residents. A Texas law firm pulled together some other high-profile examples:

It took a federal jury four days to find Paul Manafort guilty of eight counts of financial crimes on an 18-count indictment.

It took a Texas jury two and a half hours to find Eddie Ray Routh guilty of capital murder for the deaths of American Sniper Chris Kyle and his friend Chad Littlefield.

After 35 hours of deliberation over nine days, a California jury acquitted actor Robert Blake of killing his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley.

A California jury deliberated nine hours before convicting doctor Conrad Murray of unintentional manslaughter in the death of pop star legend, Michael Jackson.

A Florida jury deliberated 16 and a half hours before acquitting George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin.

A California jury deliberated less than four hours before acquitting O.J. Simpson of murder in the deaths of his wife, Nicole, and her friend, Ronald Goldman.

A Florida jury deliberated less than 11 hours before acquitting Casey Anthony of killing her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee.

A Pennsylvania jury deliberated more than 20 hours over two days before convicting Jerry Sandusky of sexually assaulting 10 boys.

It took a California jury seven days to convict Scott Peterson of murder in the death of his wife, Laci, and their unborn son.

A Texas jury deliberated eight days before acquitting Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price of bribery and mail fraud.

The aftereffects of being a juror in a high-profile case

Michelle Caballero of Miami protests the Casey Anthony verdict outside the Orange County Courthouse in Orlando, Fla., Thursday, July 7, 2011. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Today I am thinking of the weight that will be on the shoulders of jurors who didn’t ask to be in this position. They didn’t ask to give up a month of their lives and they must know that whatever they decide, protests may erupt and pour into the streets.

The jurors include a grandmother, a youth sports coach and an immigrant who said during jury selection that he wants to serve on the jury because “it is a service to my community and our country.”

The jury includes three Black men, one Black woman, and two women who identified themselves as multiracial. There are two white men and four white women. They range in age from their 20s to their 60s. There are two alternate jurors. Both are white women.

These jurors have watched the awful video of George Floyd’s death again and again. They heard in clinical detail how he died. They will be free to watch the evidence again during deliberations.

In some cases involving graphic violence, the court provides post-trial counseling. In this case, jurors may also need post-trial security. The defense attorney and all of the accused former officers say they have received death threats.

During the trial, jurors have worn masks and, because of the pandemic, the courtroom has been sparsely populated. As a result, it is impossible to guess the emotional reactions that one might witness watching juror’s faces during testimony. And the jurors have not had to feel the constant stare of a packed courtroom audience.

A scholarly study of the effects of jury duty in a high-profile trial focused on the conventional wisdom that the names of jurors should be a public record. In the trial of Casey Anthony, for example, the court released the names of jurors who acquitted Anthony of killing her daughter. In that case, jurors were trolled online and had their home addresses and even workplaces posted on the internet. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel notes:

After the 2011 Casey Anthony murder trial ended in an acquittal, some people held signs outside the Orange County Courthouse that read, “Juror 1–12 Guilty of Murder!!!” and “Somewhere a Village is Missing 12 Idiots.”

Before the trial the judge had ruled that the identities of the jurors brought in from Pinellas County would not be released for three months, citing jury safety.

After the 2013 George Zimmerman trial in the killing of teen Trayvon Martin also ended in an acquittal, there was a national outcry including social media posts with death threats for the jurors. The Seminole County judge presiding over the trial also had ordered that the jurors could be identified only by numbers.

But what about the argument that trials should be open to public inspection, especially in high-profile cases? The Sun-Sentinel notes that jurors have not been identified in many important cases:

— The federal judge in a 1987 extortion trial for reputed Philadelphia mob boss Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo told jurors they have been kept anonymous “to make sure that you would not have any apprehensions about your safety or the safety of your families or anything else.” This practice has been used in other organized-crime and drug-cartel cases around the country.

— In 2016, a New York federal judge said there was a “serious need to protect the jury” with anonymity for the trial of a suspected al Qaeda terrorist, charged in a deadly Afghanistan bombing and accused of threatening to kill prosecutors.

— California, Colorado, and Hawaii are among states that typically keep juror identities from the public.

Yet for the most part, courts around the nation have favored the release of juror names, according to an article by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

It cited a 1990 federal appeals court ruling out of New England that found, “Knowledge of juror identities allows the public to verify the impartiality of key participants in the administration of justice, and thereby ensures fairness.”

In the Chauvin trial, one woman who was called for jury duty told the judge she feared serving on the jury because it might put her family’s safety at risk. The judge dismissed her.

The pandemic makes the difficult job of finding jurors worse

In this screengrab from video, prosecutor Steve Schleicher introduces himself to potential jurors as Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill presides over jury selection, Tuesday, March 23, 2021, in the Chauvin trial. (Court TV via AP, Pool)

While we await a verdict, it’s a good time to explore the difficult job of recruiting jurors these days. It has always been hard to convince people to stop their lives for a while to do their civic duty for practically no pay, but recently, one court said only 5% of the people called to serve even showed up.

The Journal of the American Bar Association reports:

Finding jurors is a big problem in the San Diego superior court, according to Judge Lorna Alksne, the presiding judge. The court had just a 5% yield on jury summonses before its first trial this month.

“Nobody wants to serve,” she told Bloomberg Law.

In Massachusetts, trial courts began a pilot program that reduces the number of jurors from 12 to six. The courts were able to find enough jurors for five juries. But Chief Justice Paula Carey of the Trial Court of Massachusetts told Bloomberg Law that there may be an inadequate number of potential jurors in a few locations.

Jeremy Fogel, a former federal judge who is the executive director of the Berkeley Judicial Institute, told Bloomberg Law that courts in rural areas have “somewhat less difficulty” finding jurors. And some courts in urban areas are beginning to make progress. He recommends that courts make jurors feel comfortable by undertaking “a serious and well-publicized effort to create as much safety as possible.”

New Mexico is pursuing such an effort. Jurors in the state undergo temperature checks and receive “jury bags” with masks, sanitizer, pens and paper. Courts send out videos and letters describing safety procedures. The attendance rate is 70% for qualified jurors.

We’ll be back tomorrow with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Are you subscribed? Sign up here to get it delivered right to your inbox.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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