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Possibility Of An Unpopular Verdict Makes Some In The Chauvin Trial Jury Pool Nervous

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It's the first criminal trial in Minnesota to be broadcast live in its entirety. That is just one indication of the public interest in the murder case against Derek Chauvin. He's the former police officer filmed with his knee on George Floyd's neck for more than eight minutes. That video spread around the world and sparked global protests.

So being a juror on such a high-profile case could feel overwhelming, maybe even a little scary. So far, six jurors have been chosen, and NPR's Leila Fadel is here to talk about this. Hey, Leila.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Hi.

KELLY: So I'm thinking, yeah, if you're being interviewed to serve on potentially the most historic trial of our time involving race and policing, that would feel like a privilege, but it might also well feel a little overwhelming.

FADEL: Right. I mean, I'll just start with what a prospective juror sees walking into the county government center, and that's the building where the courtroom is. It's been outfitted specifically for this case being tried in the midst of a pandemic. The building is encased by fencing, razor wire at the top, National Guardsmen outside, military-style vehicles. And then when you get into that courtroom, it's being broadcast live.

Prospective jurors' names are withheld. Their faces don't appear on camera, but we can hear their voices. And there was one young man on the first day of jury selection who was clearly nervous. He told the judge he was uncomfortable. Here he is responding to one of the lawyers asking him questions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The case itself is just very - this whole thing is just very divisive, and I'm not a divisive person. I don't - I just feel like - I'd just rather not be a part of something that's so two-sided.

KELLY: You can hear he sounds nervous. Was that something you heard from other prospective jurors?

FADEL: Yeah. I mean, some jurors were actually really excited at the prospect of serving on a historic jury. And then others were nervous, like this young man. This case has sparked a national conversation on systemic racism, on who gets to protest, who gets to feel safe with law enforcement and who doesn't. Over the past year, we saw Black Lives Matter protesters demonized, largely by the right, as violent rioters, despite the fact that the vast majority of protests have been peaceful. In Minneapolis, buildings did burn. Law enforcement used rubber bullets and tear gas.

And so all of this really polarizing stuff that's dividing the country is what is also at the center of this case. And we're hearing that in the questions being asked of potential jurors as attorneys on both sides try to figure out the politics of prospective jurors, their feelings on law enforcement, on race. Here's another perspective juror from this morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: With a high-profile case, I know everything becomes public. So depending on what's ruled, that could be the problem later on down the line or even in the process.

FADEL: So she was concerned about safety, but also said it would be traumatizing to re-watch that video. She was excused. Another spoke about the scrutiny.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: The decision the jury makes has maybe broader implications, reactions from the general public and just - it's more that - knowing that the people - the general public is paying attention to the decision and more pressure, I guess, to get it right.

KELLY: So some of the voices there of potential jurors. One other development just to ask you about while we've got you, Leila - the judge today reinstated the third-degree murder charge against Chauvin. What is the significance of that?

FADEL: Well, typically, this is a charge that's brought in cases of recklessness that endanger more than one person - so cases like drug dealers charged after overdoses. But in a decision just days before jury selection from the appellate court, that decision decided it could be used in cases that aim at one person. And so today, Peter Cahill reinstated that charge bound by a higher court.

KELLY: NPR's Leila Fadel reporting. Thank you, Leila.

FADEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.