In the most highly anticipated trial to take place in Minnesota in some time, one key element still remains up in the air: the jury.
With the trial of the St. Anthony police officer charged in the death of Philando Castile opening Tuesday, the prosecution and defense will begin the arduous and often time-consuming task of deciding who will compose the 12-member panel that will decide their side’s fate.
The process may be more art than science, as the analysis applied by the attorneys can depend on a litany of factors, including the background of the defendant and the alleged victim, the nature of the charges in the case, and each side’s trial strategy, legal experts say.
Some experts reached for this article went so far as to say superstitions built on attorneys’ past wins and losses can even make their way into the equation.
“It may be that an attorney doesn’t like blue shirts because they had a bad experience with a jury that had a lot of people wearing blue shirts,” said Philip Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University in Ohio who studies arrests of police.
Regardless of what’s considered, legal experts agree that jury selection could play an important role in a successful trial strategy for either side in the case against officer Jeronimo Yanez.
The St. Anthony police officer is charged with second-degree assault and two counts of dangerous discharge of a weapon in the fatal shooting of Castile during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights last July 6. He has pleaded not guilty.
His trial starts Tuesday in Ramsey County District Court. Jury selection is expected to last through Friday, with opening arguments expected to take place next week.
“Jury selection is highly important in any case. But in cases like this, it’s tremendously important because who your jury is determines what they are inclined to believe,” said David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor and expert in police use-of-force. “It will be critical for each side to select jurors who can, number one, be open-minded and impartial… and two, believe their (side’s) version of what happened.”
THE SELECTION PROCESS
Diane Wiley thinks “jury de-selection” is a more accurate description of the process. She is president of the National Jury Project/Midwest. The organization consults with attorneys and courts about issues of bias and prejudice.
“You are not picking a jury; you are picking people you are going to excuse,” Wiley said. “There usually isn’t one question that makes you say ‘That person would be horrible…’ People are much more complicated than that… So the lawyers are saying to themselves as they look at the whole pool, ‘OK, which are the worst five people here that I absolutely don’t want.’
Both sides will start Tuesday with a pool of 50 potential jurors. They are selected at random from what is supposed to be a representative cross-section of qualified residents from Ramsey County, according to Kyle Christopherson, spokesman for the Minnesota State Court Administrator’s Office.
After filling out questionnaires, the jury panel will be questioned individually by the prosecution and defense in the random order determined by the automated jury system.
This is where each side’s legal strategy will come into play, experts say. Each side can move to strike a potential juror “for cause” based on their perceived bias or prejudice toward the involved parties or the elements of the case, Christopherson said.
Once the pool is whittled to 23, the remaining jurors will be brought out for a final round of questioning. At that time, the defense and prosecution will exercise their allotted “peremptory” strikes, or strikes that don’t need to be defended to the presiding judge. The defense gets five; the prosecution three.
Those members that remain — likely 15 — will be sworn in, Christopherson said. Twelve will hear the case with three serving as alternates.
WILL RACE FACTOR IN?
A racial breakdown of jurors who served in Ramsey County in 2016 provided by the state’s court system suggests black people were somewhat underrepresented on juries compared with the county’s population at large.
The jury data was compared to 2015 census estimates scrubbed to include only those county residents who are legal citizens between ages 18 and 70 who are not institutionalized and are proficient in English, as those are all stipulations for jury duty.
Using those data estimates for comparison, about 7 percent of the people in Ramsey County’s 2016 jury pool were black compared with about 10 percent of the county’s population in 2015, according to information provided by the state demographer’s office.
There was a narrower gap for Hispanics, 3.1 percent compared with 5 percent.
Seventy-eight percent of the jury pool was white in 2016, compared with 74 percent of the county’s population the previous year, the data said.
Castile, 32, was black. Yanez, 29, is Latino.
Yanez fired into Castile’s car seven times after telling his police partner Castile resembled a suspect in an armed robbery and that his vehicle had a broken tail light. Five of the bullets struck Castile, killing him.
Castile told Yanez he had a gun on him. He also had a permit to carry it.
The officer maintains that he fired after Castile reached for his gun after Yanez instructed him not to do so. The prosecution has argued Castile was following the officer’s orders to provide his driver’s license when he was needlessly shot.
Castile’s death sparked protests locally and nationally about police use-of-force against people of color and in particular black men.
WHAT LAWYERS LOOK FOR
While the precise equation each side will apply to jury selection is unknown, both sides on Yanez’s case will likely try to tease out potential jurors’ connections and past contacts with law enforcement, legal experts said.
The defense will likely be leery of members who have had bad experiences with police, as they may prove less likely to believe Yanez’s version of events, said John Arechigo, a defense attorney in downtown St. Paul.
Affinity for police could go both ways, though, he added.
“Depending on how you anticipate presenting your case to the jury, it could be conceivable that either side may want jurors that would kind of understand police work,” Arechigo said.
That’s why each party’s purported account of what happened in the seconds preceding the shooting will likely hold the most influence during jury selection, the experts said.
“In the old days, it used to just be what’s your ethnic group and age… Now we want to know what people already believe about the circumstances pertinent to the case,” Harris said. “You are looking for whether people would tend to be able to accept a narrative that is like the one you are going to tell… What experiences have they had with authority? Do they have reason to doubt an official’s account of things? It’s a difficult thing and every case will be different.”
Race may contribute to considerations as well, said Ted Sampsell-Jones, a professor at Mitchell-Hamline School of Law.
Since Castile was black, the defense may be concerned about black people serving on the jury, Sampsell-Jones said.
That goes against the current of most defense cases though, he added, where defense attorneys tend to want jurors skeptical of the system, which can include black people.
“Usually the defense really wants African-American jurors and the prosecution is trying to kick them off, so this is unusual for the defense in that sense,” he said.
The amount of publicity the case has garnered could also complicate things, Sampsell-Jones said.
“I expect (jury selection) will be a long and complicated process,” he said.