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There's A History Of Inequality In The Courtroom Ahead Of George Floyd Murder Trial

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

On Monday, the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin begins. He's the man who kneeled on the neck of George Floyd for more than eight minutes, and he's charged with second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. The first step in the trial is jury selection, which is complicated in any trial, and especially one as high-profile and racially loaded as this case.

Professor Sonia Gipson Rankin of the University of New Mexico Law School studies the impact of the law on Black Americans, and she joins us now. Welcome.

SONIA GIPSON RANKIN: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: So the Sixth Amendment guarantees criminal defendants the right to an impartial jury. And what does that word impartial mean when we are talking about a case that has received global attention? I mean, if a potential juror was so unaware of events last year that they never heard of George Floyd, does that say something about them in and of itself?

GIPSON RANKIN: Well, I think you raise a really important point, which is, the system is not going to be necessarily looking for someone who has never heard anything about the death of George Floyd. What they're really looking for are individuals who can show or demonstrate that they can be impartial and not let things from their own lived experiences or biases impact looking at this trial from new eyes.

SHAPIRO: So how is jury selection going to try to illuminate whatever biases people might have?

GIPSON RANKIN: So they're getting ready to begin a process that is called a voir dire process. This is from the French, to speak the truth. And this is the jury selection process whose purpose is to produce a qualified and impartial jury. So the first step is that there have been quite a number of people who've been contacted, and they completed a six-part questionnaire that asked questions related to their knowledge of the case, media habits, any police contacts they may have, their own personal backgrounds, even questions like, what kind of media do you follow, or have you ever watched the video of what occurred to George Floyd?

SHAPIRO: So if a prospective juror says something like, I believe police violence against Black people is a problem, or I believe that racism is real, those sound like statements of fact. Are they likely to disqualify a potential juror?

GIPSON RANKIN: So this is once again where we come in to really see - if you believe that, will it stand in the way of you being able to be fair and impartial in this proceeding in front of us? Can you only look at the evidence in front of you? Now, prosecutors and defense attorneys are permitted to ask that a juror be removed for cause if they're able to say, I cannot be impartial; there is no way I can separate what occurred from what I believe.

SHAPIRO: I know it's not legal to strike prospective jurors based on race or ethnicity, but do lawyers find ways around that, ways to exclude people based on race using proxies, without being explicit about it?

GIPSON RANKIN: You used absolutely the right term, right? There are sometimes ideas that there are other things that can connect to one's race or gender without ever using the word race or gender. It's like a strange game of Taboo. How can you get to the same goal without using the word?

SHAPIRO: Can you give us an example or two of what those proxies for race might be?

GIPSON RANKIN: Sometimes proxies for race will be something as seemingly benign as zip code, or what kind of stores do you like? Are you a person who shops at Target or Family Dollar? Sometimes they can be, what TV channels do you watch? So there's a question on the questionnaire that says, where do you get your news from? What social media outlets are you involved in? There's another question that says, what organizations are you a member of and do you donate funds to? Those can sometimes be considered proxies for race or for certain group affiliations.

SHAPIRO: You know, you've studied this so closely and looked at so many cases. I wonder whether you think the jury selection process generally does a good job at what it sets out to do. Or are the people who are skeptical of this process right to be skeptical?

GIPSON RANKIN: The question arises on how are people selected to even be in the pool? Some jurisdictions require that a person either be registered to vote. Some jurisdictions will allow jury selection to be selected from state identification or from driver's license records. But think about how many persons in our society do not necessarily fall into these categories of being documented in our system. I always worry about the time cases happen - right? - 8 to 5. What happens to a person who is interested but they have a job where it is not conducive to serve on a jury? What happens to a person who is unable to secure child care but are definitely vested in making sure that justice is happening in our court system? So in theory, it's a fantastic idea, but how does it shake out for the very diverse lives that individuals leave in the United States?

SHAPIRO: Sonia Gipson Rankin is a law professor at the University of New Mexico and former president of the New Mexico Black Lawyers Association. Thanks for talking with us today.

GIPSON RANKIN: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.