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Perspectives

The Chauvin Trial: Understanding Jury Selection and Sentiment

By Cynthia Herr and Rob Duboff

The Chauvin jury trial, like other high-profile legal proceedings, is taking place against the backdrop of a national discussion about a divisive cultural issue – namely, the issues of race and policing in the United States. While not all cases centered on contentious issues draw the same level of national attention, pre-existing views of culturally divisive issues do often bring unique challenges in selecting and connecting with a jury.

While not all cases centered on contentious issues draw the same level of national attention, pre-existing views of culturally divisive issues do often bring unique challenges in selecting and connecting with a jury.

HawkPartners has extensive experience working on cases centered on such issues. Several years ago, we worked on a case related to a nurse charged with manslaughter for performing euthanasia on her patient. Success or failure, in that case, hinged as much on the jurors’ attitudes toward euthanasia generally as it did on of the weight of the evidence. Similarly, notwithstanding the jurors’ vows to be fair and impartial, the Chauvin case is likely to be strongly influenced by their pre-existing beliefs around race and policing perhaps as much as, if not more than, testimony and evidence introduced over the course of the trial.

While we almost always favor jury simulations to test out nuanced case arguments and identify juror pre-dispositions likely to negatively impact our client, in cases revolving around intense social issues like these, we also recommend large attitudinal surveys. Extensive data supports the notion that frequently individual jurors are likely to ultimately vote the same as they indicate they would prior to deliberations, given the strength of their pre-existing beliefs. These surveys can identify characteristics of people predisposed toward or against certain hot-topic issues and, in turn, inform voir dire strategies.

Extensive data supports the notion that frequently individual jurors are likely to ultimately vote the same as they indicate they would prior to deliberations, given the strength of their pre-existing beliefs.

Of course, most jurors have a genuine intent to be an open-minded trier of fact.  Given social pressure to say they can serve as an open-minded juror, they are unlikely to acknowledge holding any feelings so strong they could not be fair to both sides, as demonstrated by the Chauvin jurors.  Jurors believe they can listen to the evidence before making up their mind; though in many cases, their pre-existing beliefs about social issues will inevitably influence what they hear and retain, and how that information is interpreted. But analysis from a pre-trial questionnaire that correlates certain attributes – occupation, income, experience with law enforcement, etc. – with support of relevant social movements can provide insight into which types of jurors may preclude a favorable verdict for one side or the other.

In the euthanasia case described above, we conducted survey analysis to find out which groups disproportionately opposed the practice. This informed our peremptory strike strategy and contributed to a favorable verdict.  Similarly, the issues in the Chauvin case are clear-cut enough that the pre-existing views of jurors likely will guide the ultimate outcome.  Any juror, regardless of awareness of the specifics of the events, in this case, is likely to have views that are already strongly ingrained, simply through years of news watching, conversations with friends and family, and their own personal experiences.

As reported in a recent piece published on Law360[1], members of the seated jury demonstrated both favorable and unfavorable views of the Black Lives Matter movement during voir dire. Indeed, there were as many jurors who suggested that Black Americans are disenfranchised and treated unequally by the criminal justice system as there were jurors who exhibited support for the role police play in protecting their communities.  We view these responses as indicative of the types of sentiments that will serve as filters for what the jurors will focus on and retain from the testimony presented.

We view these responses as indicative of the types of sentiments that will serve as filters for what the jurors will focus on and retain from the testimony presented.

The jury has been selected and, with that, Chauvin’s verdict may have already been largely determined.  We need to wait to find out what it is – but survey data likely already knows.

[1] Carla Bayles, Annie Pancak and Steven Trader. Meet the Jury in the Chauvin Murder Trial. Law360 (April 4, 2021).

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