Crime: EXPLAINER: Role of alternate jurors in ex-officer's trial

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Attorneys in the trial of a former Minneapolis police officer charged in George Floyd’s death are wrangling over not just the 12 jurors who will decide the verdict but also two alternates.

In this screen grab from video, defense attorney Eric Nelson, center, listens as Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill presides over jury selection in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, Wednesday, March 17, 2021 at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis, Minn.   Chauvin is charged in the May 25, 2020 death of George Floyd.  (Court TV, via AP, Pool) © Provided by Associated Press In this screen grab from video, defense attorney Eric Nelson, center, listens as Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill presides over jury selection in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, Wednesday, March 17, 2021 at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis, Minn. Chauvin is charged in the May 25, 2020 death of George Floyd. (Court TV, via AP, Pool)

Derek Chauvin's trial is moving forward amid national attention around Floyd's death, plus a pandemic that could potentially disrupt proceedings expected to last several weeks. That's why the two alternates will play important role, ready to sub in for other jurors who are unable to continue with the trial.

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Here’s a look at how alternate jurors will work in the trial of the former officer charged with murder and manslaughter:

WHAT ARE ALTERNATE JURORS?

During the criminal trial, alternate jurors will be indistinguishable from their peers. In fact, they won't even know they are alternates. The judge won't reveal who the alternative jurors are until attorneys have finished making their cases. That's so that the alternates don't yawn off during proceedings and are ready to step in if another juror is unable to continue.

In this screen grab from video, defense attorney Eric Nelson, left,  defendant former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, right, and Nelson's assistant Amy Voss, back, listen as Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill  presides over jury selection in the trial of Chauvin Wednesday, March 17, 2021 at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis, Minn.  Chauvin is charged in the May 25, 2020 death of George Floyd.   (Court TV, via AP, Pool) © Provided by Associated Press In this screen grab from video, defense attorney Eric Nelson, left, defendant former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, right, and Nelson's assistant Amy Voss, back, listen as Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill presides over jury selection in the trial of Chauvin Wednesday, March 17, 2021 at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis, Minn. Chauvin is charged in the May 25, 2020 death of George Floyd. (Court TV, via AP, Pool)

The alternate jurors will be the final two selected for the 14-person panel. Opening statements are expected March 29 unless the process isn’t complete by then.

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WHY ARE THEY NEEDED?

Alternate jurors will step in if a juror can't continue in the trial for reasons such as illness, a family emergency, or further exposure to information on Floyd's death that would taint their decision.

“In any long trial, there are just things that come up in people’s personal lives,” said Mary Moriarty, a former Hennepin County chief public defender.

But Moriarty said alternate jurors will be even more important in this trial, given the high-profile nature of Floyd's death and the ongoing pandemic.

Even finding 14 people to serve on the jury has been a challenge for such a well-known case. Attorneys have questioned potential jurors about their ability to keep an open mind, how they resolve conflicts, their views on the criminal justice system, and whether they felt safe serving on the jury.

WHAT DO THEY DO DURING JURY DELIBERATIONS?

After attorneys present their arguments, criminal prosecution rules stipulate that alternate jurors “must be discharged” when the jury goes into deliberations. But Minnesota criminal defense attorneys said the judge could make sure that alternates maintain their ability to rejoin the jury if needed.

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Joe Friedberg, a defense attorney, said he expected the judge to make the call to sequester alternates during jury deliberations. He said in his experience, alternates are called upon once in every four or five trials.

But Moriarty said the judge could also just instruct alternates to refrain from researching the trial on their own during deliberations, while stopping short of sequestering them with the rest of the jury.

Just six sentences are devoted to alternate jurors in Minnesota’s Rules of Criminal Procedure, the rules that govern how criminal prosecutions work in the state. The rules state that if a juror can't continue during deliberations, a mistrial must be declared unless the parties agree that the jury can proceed with fewer members.

Moriarty said she “could not imagine” a defense attorney agreeing to allow a jury to reach a verdict without the full 12 members.

Opinion: One of the most important trials America has ever seen is about to start .
Elie Honig writes that while there is no way to predict what the jury in the Derek Chauvin trial will decide, this uncertainty is even more pronounced in a case involving the police and race.We have a jury in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, charged with the May 2020 killing of George Floyd. Now we stand on the precipice of one of the most important trials this country has ever seen.

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