George Floyd's family lawyer is a fixture outside the Chauvin trial. Legal experts say this will come up on appeal if the ex-cop is convicted.

George Floyd's family lawyer is a fixture outside the Chauvin trial. Legal experts say this will come up on appeal if the ex-cop is convicted.
George Floyd family attorney Ben Crump, center, addresses media outside the Hennepin County Government Center.AP Photo/Jim Mone
  • The Floyd family lawyer has been making announcements and holding events throughout Chauvin's trial.
  • The timing of those events may come up on appeal if Chauvin is convicted, legal experts said.
  • This is one of many challenges of trying high-profile cases in the internet age, they said.

It was four days into jury selection in the trial of fired Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin when Benjamin Crump, an attorney for George Floyd's family, held a press conference outside the Hennepin County Courthouse to announce the city's $27 million wrongful death settlement.


When the trial kicked off two weeks later, Crump and Rev. Al Sharpton gathered outside the courthouse to take a knee for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, illustrating the amount of time that Chauvin was recorded with his knee on Floyd's neck before his death.

The civil rights team returned to the government building Wednesday as the trial rolled on inside, this time leading spectators and Floyd's family in prayer.

While Crump is well within his rights to host these demonstrations honoring Floyd and his family, criminal law experts say they'll likely be raised on appeal if Chauvin is convicted.

"It is risky behavior. The timing is troubling, there's no question about it," retired federal Judge Nancy Gertner said of the March 12 settlement announcement. "You don't know who that affects. So for the prosecution, did they wind up losing jurors that would have otherwise been good for them because they heard about this?"


After the announcement, Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill called all seven jurors who had already been selected back into the courtroom and questioned them on whether they could stay impartial after exposure to the news. Two were ultimately dismissed, and several potential jurors in the pool were also dismissed after they told the judge they believed the settlement amount was so high that it indicated guilt.

Gertner, who now teaches at Harvard Law School, drew a distinction between holding a demonstration and releasing information the jury would have not been exposed to at trial otherwise.

"That's always a more difficult situation, because how do you forget what you heard?" Gertner said of new information related to the case. "Having a demonstration, that really doesn't have an impact."

Representatives for Crump didn't respond to Insider's request for comment.

'People only pay that much if they did something wrong'

If the Hennepin County jury convicts Chauvin, who is charged with murder and manslaughter, experts say appellate lawyers will likely argue the timing of the $27 million settlement and highly publicized demonstrations at the courthouse could have compromised their client's right to a fair trial.


Daniel Medwed, distinguished professor of law and criminal justice at Northeastern University School of Law, told Insider that while there's no legal problem with the timing of the settlement because civil and criminal court processes are separate, "it could create a practical glitch down the road."

Cahill and attorneys for both the prosecution and defense spent two weeks in early March questioning potential jurors about their thoughts on a variety of topics, including the racial justice movement and policing. Those who responded in ways that indicated a deeply held bias, either in favor of or opposed to police, were dismissed for cause.

"If Chauvin is convicted, I imagine his appellate lawyers will challenge the jury selection process and claim the judge didn't do enough to ensure they were fair and impartial," Medwed said. "Part of that argument might be that news of the settlement on the cusp of trial tainted their objectivity and tilted them in the direction of guilt based on the idea that 'people only pay that much if they did something wrong.'"

But according to Gertner, the settlement news may have harmed the prosecution more than the defense.

"In one sense, the defense is in an easier situation because people who had heard about it arguably would be excluded and this is a piece of information that is pro-prosecution," Gertner said. "The defense might be just as happy to exclude people who know about it."


Crump's demonstrations near the courthouse would likely pose less of an issue in a potential appeal. After more than 10 months of protests in Floyd's name, Medwed thinks most of the jurors have become almost "numb" to them and expect to see them on their way to court.

George Floyd's family lawyer is a fixture outside the Chauvin trial. Legal experts say this will come up on appeal if the ex-cop is convicted.
George Floyd Square in Minneapolis.AP Photo/Jim Mone

Dealing with publicity in a connected world

In decades past, shielding a jury - especially in smaller towns - from media coverage or public opinion was simple. It's not as easy now that everyone is walking around with internet access in their pocket.

"What's tricky is that once a trial started, or once a jury has been empanelled, how do you prevent juries from hearing about it?" Medwed said. "Back in the old days, you used to see juries sequestered in hotels and they're given newspapers with articles cut out. But nowadays, how do you prevent a jury from checking their phone? Even if they were in a hotel, sequestered, how do you actually prevent them from going online? It can't happen."

George Floyd's death galvanized a global movement for black lives that permeated pop culture, marketing, and social media. While jurors may be able to actively shield themselves from news stories about the topic, avoiding public discourse about the trial - especially when they cannot tell friends and family they are serving - is more challenging.

"A case like this is going to play out in the national market, and courts have to figure out what techniques they can use to minimizes the prejudice that comes from the publicity," Gertner said.


When an event drastically rocks a city, a judge may allow for a trial to be held elsewhere to better the chances of finding a fair jury. Cahill denied the defense's motion for a change of venue, saying the Chauvin trial has been the subject of global publicity and no place in Minnesota was untouched by the news.

That denial will likely come up in a potential appeal, "but not necessarily overturn the verdict," Gertner said.

Cahill and the attorneys in the Chauvin case may have protected a verdict from being overturned on appeal by extensively questioning potential jurors ahead of the trial - and doing at least some digging into their social media pages, Medwed said.

He noted this was a lesson judges around the country learned from the Boston Marathon bombing trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was accused of killing three people and injuring over 280 in 2013.

Similar to the Chauvin case, jurors in Boston were exposed to vigils and memorials of the bombing victims on every corner and in most storefronts throughout the city ahead of the trial. Tsarnaev was convicted and sentenced to death, but that sentence was overturned after an appellate court found the judge didn't go far enough in investigating the social media history of jurors.


"Appellate courts really want judges in this modern era to dot their 'i's and cross their 't's, to make sure that perspective jurors aren't biased, and that includes really vetting their social media activities," Medwed said. "I think the judge here did that. Maybe he took a bit of a lesson from the Boston Marathon bombing, but it's going to be an issue."

Trusting the jurors

When a juror is selected to serve in a trial, and sometimes before that, they are instructed to avoid all coverage of the case.

Judges are expected to meet with jurors at the beginning of each day of trial to ask whether they have been exposed to any new information about a case, and whether it's impacted their impartiality.

"I was a judge for 17 years and I actually believe that they do" listen, Gertner said. "Some don't, but certainly the overwhelming majority do, and I know that only because I could be in the middle of a high-profile trial and have a juror say to me 'you know, I was taking the train in today and I accidentally saw a headline.'"

"So they would be scrupulous to let me know when they had any sort of encounter," she added.


Gertner said judges have to trust that jurors are being honest and will come forward if they feel they can no longer be impartial. Every juror selected in the Chauvin trial presumably knew how high-profile it is, and would have been admonished that anything they learn or see outside the courtroom should have no effect on their verdict.

"But still, all of it - Al Sharpton's press conference, the demonstrations, the settlements - all of them will impress upon the jury that they're carrying a monumental burden here and that the world is paying attention to their decision," Medwed said. "That's complicated for a lot of people, I'm sure."