Starting March 29, Minneapolis’s Hennepin County Courthouse will become the focus of national attention when Judge Peter Cahill gavels to order the Minnesota v. Derek Chauvin — the former Minneapolis police officer charged with killing George Floyd. Nearly a year ago, in May 2020, Floyd died in police custody outside of Cup Foods, setting off a sustained Black Lives Matter protest movement that continued across America throughout the summer even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, and sparked a coast-to-coast conversation about the future of policing.
Even as other issues attracted national attention — from the 2020 presidential campaign to the recent epidemic of violence against Asian Americans — Minneapolis has been living with the aftermath of Floyd’s death, and the impending trial of his accused killer. Due to the charged nature of the case, as well as pandemic restrictions, there was initially some question about whether the public would be able to observe events as they unfolded in the courtroom. Enter the Atlanta-based cable channel Court TV, which joined a coalition of other major media organizations to work with Hennepin County officials to ensure access for their cameras.
“This was a really unique time to have a high-profile case, because COVID-19 meant that there was a very small amount of room in this particular courtroom,” Scott Tufts, Senior Vice President of Court TV tells Yahoo Entertainment. “The court had overflow rooms where some media could watch the proceedings on a Zoom, but they still didn't have enough space for everyone.” Complicating matters further is the fact that Minnesota had never had a trial carried on national television, and state statutes required that all parties approve the presence of cameras in the courtroom. But Tufts credits Judge Cahill with recognizing the national importance of this particular case and issuing his own order that allowed Court TV, and other outlets, to install remotely-operated cameras.
“It was the desire of Judge Cahill and Chief Judge Toddrick S. Barnett — who oversees all of the court system in Hennepin County — to make sure that they could pull back the veil and open the courtroom to the public,” Tufts says. “This is probably the biggest police brutality trial in the history of the United States, and they knew that it was really important that the public be able to see all of it.”
Court TV will be airing gavel-to-gavel coverage of Minnesota v. Derek Chauvin starting Monday, but Tufts and the network’s legal correspondent, Julia Jenaé, have already been on the ground in Minneapolis for weeks monitoring jury selection, which proved a particularly difficult part of the process for this case. At one point, selection was nearly halted as the Minnesota Supreme Court weighed an appeal from Chauvin’s legal team challenging a third-degree murder charge. On March 10, the court rejected that appeal and Judge Cahill reinstated the charge the following day.
Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment earlier this month during jury selection, Jenaé described the process as a “roller coaster,” noting the fact that many of the potential jurors were very aware of the attention surrounding the case. “You typically try to find the jurors who haven't really watched much of anything,” she notes. “But this is one where the lawyers approach it like, ‘We know you have seen it, and we know you have possibly formed an opinion, but tell us more about it.’ Rather than, ‘Let's try and find someone who doesn't have an opinion.’"
In separate conversations, Jenaé and Tufts spoke about the challenges of covering this case, and what viewers should expect to see as the trial unfolds in the coming weeks and months.
Yahoo Entertainment: What has the experience been like so far on the ground in Minneapolis?
Scott Tufts (SVP of Court TV): I've been to Minneapolis many times over the last several decades and the mood of the city is so different today. It feels like people want to have this trial and allow Derek Chauvin to have his day in court, and then figure out how to turn the page for the community to recover together.
Julia Jenaé (Court TV legal correspondent): It's majorly different from other trials: There's no way to understate that. I have never seen a 10-foot chain link-fence, razor wire and a tank on the grounds in front of the courthouse. I walked into the courthouse area for the first time yesterday because it's been restricted, and I was only allowed in because I'm on the rotating list for pool reporters inside the courthouse. The second I walked into the restricted area, there's a National Guard tank facing you, and National Guard members holding their rifles. That's daunting for anyone, even someone in journalism like myself, who has been on a lot of different kinds of scenes and disaster areas. And being inside during the COVID-19 era is unique, because there are so many precautions in terms of protecting everyone. The plexiglass is everywhere, and when they lawyers do sidebars, they use headphones.
One of the big points of interest in this case is that it's rare for the public to to see police officers on trial. How will that factor into the coverage?
Jenaé: I do think this is a trial that the public needs to watch to understand what happened 10 months ago. Everyone has processed this story in different ways, so watching this trial is almost the culmination of the process. Cases with police officers are unique, and they're very challenging to prosecute. It's also less likely that the verdict will be guilty in terms of statistics, so that's the reason I think it's even more important for people to understand the process and understand why that happens and if that's going to happen in this case.
Tufts: We did a series recently called Police on Trial, and showcased a number of previous high-profile police brutality prosecutions that aired on Court TV. The Amadou Diallo case out of New York is one example, and that was very similar to this in that New York traditionally does not have cameras in court, but because of the overriding public interest the judge ruled that cameras could be present there. We also showcased Court TV's coverage of the Rodney King trial. That case was moved out of Los Angeles to Simi Valley, where they ended up getting an almost all-white jury, and an acquittal in a high-profile beating. There's some real similarities between those events and the the community uproar around them. The difference is that this trial is being held at a courthouse about 15 minutes away from where George Floyd died, and they're pulling the jury from the same community.
Has the court place any restrictions on what you can show on television?
Jenaé: We can't show the jurors at all. I had a small issue yesterday where we thought we could see reflection of a potential juror in the plexiglass of the attorneys, who we can film. So we just turned the podium, and that got rid of the reflection. These are the kinds of things that we have to watch out for. We also can't allow any audio of the attorneys when they are in sidebar, as that's private and not for the gallery or the jury to hear.
Have you spoken with anyone within law enforcement that's concerned about the police being investigated in this way or what happens next with policing?
Jenaé: No one who has been vocal about it. We talked to the former county sheriff, and he has been very vocal in making changes in the Minneapolis police department. So there's not a sense of vocal resistance to the trial, just the general sense that this is a part of the criminal justice system, and this is how it should play out. There are two separate things: the criminal justice system and the prosecution of Derek Chauvin, and there are the policy and societal changes that have come about after the death of George Floyd. The former happens in the courtroom and the latter happens in our government and our city council meetings. The U.S. House just passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, and that kind of legislation isn't bound by what happens with Derek Chauvin one way or the other.
What is the importance of this trial to Minneapolis's Black community?
Jenaé: I was just in George Floyd Square, which is the area around the Cup Foods where he died, and I heard a lot of sentiments there from people who felt that there has to be a conviction. They're unwavering in that belief, but they also seem to understand that this is a process, and how the charges differ. But justice, for them, is a conviction for murder. They want to see this carried out to the end, and they're watching it closely. This trial is emotional for so many people, because everyone watched the video and had a reaction to it
Tufts: All of the residents of Minneapolis, and especially those in the AfricanAmerican community, want to be able to watch the proceedings unfold and hear the evidence as it's introduced. They don't want George Floyd to be put on trial — they want Derek Chauvin to be put on trial. They want to be able to see all the evidence, so the response within the community in Minneapolis has been overwhelmingly positive to our presence and having cameras in the courtroom.
Certainly the composition of the jury is being watched very closely. Is that something you've observed in the courtroom?
Jenaé: It has come up in arguments. The other day there was actually an accusation from the state's table: They brought up what's called a Batson challenge. When the defense used two of their strikes — the only two of their strikes they'd used so far — they were used against the two Hispanic members of the jury pool. And the state said that they couldn't strike someone based on their race. The defense gave race-neutral reasons for why they dismissed those two jurors, and the judge agreed that those were reasons that didn't have anything to do with their race. So race is an issue: it's unavoidable. Each one of the jurors is being asked questions like, "Do you feel Black people are treated differently by law enforcement? How do you feel about the Black Lives Matter movement? Do you think your criminal justice system is inequitable?" Those are the questions these jurors are having to dig into.
[Fifteen jurors were ultimately selected for the trial, including four of whom are Black, two are multiracial and nine are white.]
What are some of the things you'd advise viewers to be attentive to as the trial unfolds?
Tufts: There is a little bit of the CSI effect in that viewers are expecting things to be wrapped up in an hour, but in a real courtroom, forensic testimony takes multiple days and many hours. There'll also be questions about what happened leading up to the officers coming up to the car: You'll actually see the entire interaction with the officers with George Floyd before the social media video begins that we've all seen. One item that's already come up is whether or not there are similarities to a 2019 arrest where there was body cam footage of George Floyd. The defense is making an argument that there's a trend there. I'm not a lawyer and don't want to sound like one, but that's just one of the early elements that appear to be part of the legal strategy of the defense — tying in that 2019 arrest. It previously was ruled to be not relevant and not allowed, but they're making another effort to include it.
[Judge Cahill has since ruled that some of that evidence is admissible.]
In some of these higher-profile trials that tend to last multiple weeks, our audience will grow as time moves along; they'll get connected and they'll stick around for multiple weeks. That shows a yearning to understand, and wanting to better be engaged. This trial is American history in the making, and I think viewers will respond by tuning in and sticking with it until a verdict is read.
We're a long way away from a verdict, but there's already concern about what that verdict will be and what might happen after it's announced. How are you preparing for that?
Tufts: The number one priority for us is the safety of our team in the field. We've hired private security for them to move from their hotel location to the courthouse, and we decided to move one of the studios into a hotel so that that team is in the same place and doesn't have to spend as much time on the street level, in case there ends up being a dangerous situation.
Jenaé: To be honest, I haven't thought about it, and that's how I approach every trial. There's going to be so much that we have to report and share and be aware of. I know verdict day is coming, but it's not something that I'm focused on right now. What I'm focused on is: What's happening today? I'm thankful to have a boss like Scott, who is handling all of that behind the scenes for us, so we can focus on what happens in court.
Court TV's coverage of Minnesota v. Derek Chauvin begins March 29.
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