The jury began deliberations Monday in the Derek Chauvin trial, but Rep. Maxine Waters, California Democrat, may have inadvertently laid the groundwork for an appeal.
Hennepin County Court Judge Peter Cahill rejected a defense request for a mistrial over inflammatory comments made by Ms. Waters at Saturday’s protest in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, but acknowledged that the California Democrat may have provided an out for Mr. Chauvin if he is found guilty.
“I’ll give you that Congresswoman Waters may have given you something on appeal that may result in this whole trial being overturned,” Judge Cahill told the court.
He rejected the mistrial request, declaring that “a congresswoman’s opinion really doesn’t matter a whole lot,” after Ms. Waters said that protesters should “get more confrontational” and “stay on the streets” if the jury acquits Mr. Chauvin in the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.
The judge said he wished that elected officials would give their opinions “in a manner that is consistent with their oath to the constitution.”
“Their failure to do so I think is abhorrent, but I don’t think it has prejudiced us with additional material that would prejudice this jury,” Judge Cahill said.
He noted that the jurors had been instructed to avoid all media coverage, but if they were paying attention, the message would be loud and clear: Find the former Minneapolis officer guilty in Floyd’s death, or else.
Even before closing statements Monday, the threat of mass protest violence was unmistakable as major cities from Beverly Hills to the Big Apple braced for the outcome with heightened security; Minneapolis schools prepared to go virtual, and the NBA warned of possible game cancellations.
The public-safety preparations come after weeks of public figures, including some Democratic congressional leaders, calling for Mr. Chauvin to be found guilty and raising the specter of post-verdict unrest.
Rep. Karen Bass, California Democrat, sponsor of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, said she thought Mr. Chauvin was “guilty of an egregious act,” and worried that a lesser verdict or soft sentence could touch off protests.
“I’m very worried because I don’t think anyone in Minneapolis, frankly, anyone in the United States and over a good part of the world, would understand any other verdict other than guilty,” Ms. Bass said Sunday on CNN. “We don’t know how long after the verdict that the judge will impose sentencing, so it could be a while, but I worry that both are flashpoints.”
Floyd family attorney Ben Crump said ahead of the closing statements that he hoped Mr. Chauvin would be “held criminally liable in killing George Floyd.”
“We cannot condone this evil that we saw on that video where Derek Chauvin kept his knee on George Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds,” Mr. Crump said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” “And we have to finally have this racial reckoning, America, because if we don’t, then people are going to continue to have these emotional protests.”
Prosecutor Steve Schleicher wrapped up the case Monday by refuting defense assertions that the 46-year-old Floyd died of a drug overdose or heart attack while he was pinned down by the officer, calling his death a “straight-up felony assault.”
“Believe your eyes. What you saw happen, happened,” said Mr. Schleicher, referring to the video footage of Floyd’s death.
Defense attorney Eric Nelson countered that his client “did not purposely use unlawful force,” saying the officers at the scene were “doing their job in a highly stressful situation, according to the training, according to the policies of the Minneapolis Police Department. And it’s tragic.”
Jurors will be fully isolated as they weigh the evidence, but they were only partially sequestered during the trial, which opened March 29, meaning that until Monday, they were permitted to go home at night.
Judge Cahill rejected a sequestration request last week after protests broke out over the April 11 death of 20-year-old Daunte Wright, who was shot by an officer in Brooklyn Center, about 10 miles from the courthouse.
In his mistrial request, Mr. Nelson was he was stunned by Ms. Waters’ remarks.
“Now that we have U.S. representatives threatening acts of violence in relation to this trial, it’s frankly mind-blowing,” he said.
Judge Cahill said it “goes back to what I have been saying from the beginning. I wish elected officials would stop talking about this case, especially in a manner that is disrespectful to the rule of law.”
In a perfect world, jurors follow a judge’s instructions to the letter, but last week’s protests in Minneapolis and Brooklyn Center, combined with the non-stop news coverage and public-safety preparations, fueled questions over whether the potential for chaos could influence the jury.
Charles “Cully” Stimson, a former prosecutor and judge who now serves as a Heritage Foundation senior legal fellow, said it was certainly possible.
“We have no way of knowing what the jurors individually have read outside of being in court or whether they followed the judge’s rules. One hopes,” said Mr. Stimson. “When I was a judge, I always hoped that my juries followed every golden word that tripped off my tongue, but is it possible they don’t do that? Yeah, it’s possible.”
If Mr. Chauvin is convicted, and jurors later admit they were influenced by outside events, that could also form the basis of an appeal.
“Let’s say one or more of the jurors after this thing is over says, ‘There’s no way we were not going to convict him of something because we knew the blood would be on our hands. We didn’t want to be doxed, we didn’t want our families hounded, we didn’t want our homes to be burned down,’” said Mr. Stimson. “Boom. You know you’re going to get an appeal based on that.”
Certainly, Saturday’s vandalism in Santa Rosa, California, would give a juror pause. Police said the previous home of defense expert witness Barry Brodd, a former Santa Rose officer, was splattered with blood and a pig’s head left on the porch in what was a case of mistaken targeting.
“It appears the suspects in this vandalism were targeting Mr. Brodd for his testimony,” said the police statement. “Mr. Brodd has not lived at the residence for a number of years and is no longer a resident of California. Because Mr. Brodd no longer lives in the city of Santa Rosa, it appears the victim was falsely targeted.”
The vandals, who were dressed in black, ran off after the current homeowner called the police.
Last week, the department released a statement saying that Mr. Brodd’s “comments do not reflect the values and beliefs of the Santa Rosa Police Department.”
Officials in Minneapolis, New York City, Los Angeles and other major cities are making preparations for potential rioting after the verdict is announced, while the Minneapolis school district said it would implement distance learning from Wednesday to Friday.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday that the administration has engaged in a “range of conversations” about preparations for the upcoming verdict, adding, “Our objective is to ensure there is space for peaceful protest.”
The White House is considering whether President Biden should address the nation and the possibility of sending Justice Department community facilitators to potential hotspots, including Minneapolis, according to the Associated Press.
“Of course, we’ll let the jury deliberate, and we’ll wait for the verdict to come out before we say more about our engagements,” Ms. Psaki said.
• The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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