Protesters gathered outside of the Hennepin County Courthouse on the first day of the trial of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

The trial of former Officer Derek Chauvin is coming to an end, with closing arguments slated to begin Monday.

Chauvin faces three charges for his role in the death of George Floyd last year. The trial will be wrapping up amidst calls for justice for yet another Black man fatally shot by police. Former Brooklyn Center officer Kim Potter was recently charged with manslaughter in the death of Daunte Wright. With all eyes on the state of Minnesota, people across the world have awaited the fate of Chauvin. Once closing arguments have been made, the decision is in the hands of a 12-person jury. In order for there to be a conviction, it must be unanimous. 

So how does a jury reach a verdict, especially in such a high-profile case? 

Sahan Journal spoke to a few attorneys who mapped out the process for us. Rick Petry is a former private attorney who worked criminal defense cases for 20 years. He’s represented clients in civil suits against police officers and has also represented police officers. Mary Moriarty is the former chief public defender in Hennepin County.

The Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis, a nonprofit law firm has also put together resources about how a trial works. Andrew Gordon, an attorney and deputy director at the firm, said it conducted community forums to educate its clients as the Chauvin trial unfolded.

“We had people coming to us with genuine questions,” Gordon said, “based on an erroneous understanding of the law and about what was going on.”

As part of a video series to respond to those questions, the Legal Rights Center created a video about jury instruction and deliberation.

Judge instructs jury

Judge Peter Cahill will give the jury its official instructions on Monday, probably before the prosecution and defense make their closing arguments. Proposed jury instructions from the prosecution and the defense were made available at the start of the trial.

Jury instruction itself doesn’t take very long, but each juror will get a hard copy of the instructions. That packet will include various definitions. Each charge for the defendant is also outlined in the packet with its own instructions. This includes a definition of the charge and its criteria.

Along with the instructions, jurors will also get verdict forms for when they’re ready to report their final verdict. 

Final steps before deliberation

A few more things have to happen before the jury is sent off. First, both parties will give their closing arguments. They’ll likely adopt language from the jury instruction since this is the last time they’ll be speaking to the jury. The language in the jury instructions isn’t always easy to understand, so in their closing arguments, both parties will likely focus on how they should interpret the instructions.

Next, a bailiff is sworn in. The bailiff is responsible for maintaining the safety of the jurors while they’re sequestered. They relay communication between the jury and the judge. They even get food for the jurors throughout the day. 

“Nobody is allowed to go into that room while they’re deliberating, other than members of the jury,” Petry said. “The lawyers can’t go in there, the judge—nobody.”

Behind closed doors

Petry said he has a basic understanding of how jurors deliberate based on conversations he’s had with former jurors. The jury will be sequestered, meaning they will be isolated from their families, the general public, and the news media so they aren’t fed information outside of what was presented in the courtroom. The jurors will be escorted to a hotel at night by the bailiff. Once the 12 jurors are gathered, they have to pick a foreperson who will lead deliberations and report the final verdict. One of the jurors might volunteer, otherwise they’ll vote for one.

The jurors are on their own to organize their deliberations and go through all the information they have. They can refer to notes, jury instructions, and evidence that’s been received by the judge (i.e. photos, videos, slideshows, etc.). 

However, they will not be getting transcripts of the testimonies from the trial. 

“You can look at your notes. Otherwise, you’re to rely on your own memory,” Petry said.

Sitting in a room with 12 people and a stack of evidence and legal jargon as instruction can be difficult to navigate. Jurors might try to submit questions to the judge, but they’re more than likely going to be referred back to their jury instructions.

“Not all of the instructions are written in plain English,” Moriarty said. “They’re going to have to figure out how to interpret some of these instructions. And if they have questions, they’re not going to be given an answer.”

For instance, Moriarty said, they have to decide what constitutes a “depraved mind,” a term used in the law to define one of the charges against Chauvin. They have to figure out what “causation” is. They have to figure out what to do with the evidence about Floyd’s heart condition and drug use.

“They’ll be talking about what all of those things mean and trying to apply the facts that they’ve heard,” Moriarty said. “They’ve heard experts on both sides, they’re going to have to figure out which ones make more sense to them, and then apply the law to the facts that they find believable—and the opinions that they find believable.”

What can Chauvin be found guilty of?

Chauvin faces three charges: second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. Here’s what each charge means:

Second-degree unintentional murder

Definition: The defendant caused the death of a human being without intent to effect death.

What does this mean: The prosecution would have had to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Chauvin caused Floyd’s death while assaulting him. 

Sentence: About 10-15 years.

Third-degree murder

Definition: The defendant caused the death of a person through an eminently dangerous act and was performed with a depraved mind, without regard for human life.

What it means: The prosecution would have had to prove that Chauvin caused Floyd’s death by perpetrating a dangerous act without regard for his life

Sentence: About 10-15 years

Second-degree manslaughter

Definition: There was a death of a person caused by the defendant’s culpable negligence.

What it means: Prosecutors would have had to show beyond a reasonable doubt that Chauvin acted in culpable negligence, meaning his conduct created an unreasonable risk of causing death or great bodily harm to Floyd.

Sentence: 41-57 months

Reaching a verdict

Once the jury has gone through all the evidence, how will they come to a consensus? In some cases, the jurors will just vote. If all 12 hands go up in agreement for each charge, they’re done. They can report their verdict on a form, hand it to the bailiff, who will give it to the judge. The jury will come back into the courtroom and they’ll announce the verdict.

Sometimes, the foreperson wants to conduct the deliberation in a more methodical way. So they’ll discuss aspects of the case before putting it to a vote.

So how long will this take? It’s hard to say, Moriarty said.

“I can say that the fact that they are sequestered makes it likely that they’ll come back earlier,” Moriarty said. “There’s a lot of pressure on jurors who are kept together, they don’t get to go home at night and get refreshed, eat their own food, sleep in their own bed.”

Petry echoed that it’s impossible to say how long the jury will take. “They’ll take as long as they take,” he said. “People would say if they come back quickly, it’s probably not a good verdict for the defendant. But that’s not always the case.”

Coming to a unanimous decision often is not easy for any 12 people, and it’s likely that jurors won’t be able to do it the first time they vote. The foreperson might take more time to discuss the evidence first before putting it to a vote if opinions are a bit scattered across the board. If the jury comes to the conclusion that it’s stuck, it can report that to the judge who will encourage them to try again. The judge might have to nudge them a few times before they’re able to come up with a verdict. 

But if they really can’t, the trial ends up in a hung jury and no verdict. In that case, the state has the option of retrying the case—fresh jury and all.

“It’s always a possibility with any trial,” Petry said. “You never know how it’s going to turn out.”

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.