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First Challenge in George Floyd Murder Trial: Finding an Impartial Jury

In the Rodney King case in Los Angeles in the early 1990s, the four officers caught on video beating Mr. King were acquitted after their trial was moved to the predominantly white suburb of Simi Valley, touching off violent riots. At around the same time in Minneapolis, protests rocked the city following an all-white grand jury’s decision not to indict a white officer, Dan May, who fatally shot a Black teenager in the back.

Minneapolis is about 64 percent white and 20 percent Black, while the jury pool in its county, Hennepin, was 80 percent white and 8 percent Black in the 2020 fiscal year, according to figures from the State Court Administrator’s Office. The difference reflects the fact that the county is whiter than the city and Black potential jurors tend to be slightly underrepresented in the pool.

Jury diversity is important for two reasons, experts said. Research shows that just as diverse corporations and institutions perform better, so do juries, benefiting from multiple perspectives. And if the jury lacks racial diversity, its verdict would likely not be viewed as legitimate.

Paul Butler, a former prosecutor and professor at Georgetown Law, expressed concern that some questions, asking whether prospective jurors agreed with a series of statements about race and policing, might be used to disqualify people of color even when the statement is objectively true — for example, the statement “Minneapolis police officers are more likely to respond with force when confronting Black suspects than when dealing with white suspects.”

But Mr. Herbert, the defense lawyer, said private polling conducted before the Van Dyke trial showed that the vast majority of Black residents were predisposed to convict. “In these police cases where it’s a white police officer and a Black victim, it is virtually impossible to find a significant number of Blacks that have not prejudged the case, for many reasons, not the least of which is what they have gone through, likely, in the past.”

On the other hand, legal experts say, having too many white jurors would probably stack the deck in favor of the defense, because people tend to have less natural empathy for someone of a different race — in this case, Mr. Floyd — and white people are more likely to favor law enforcement.

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