The Derek Chauvin Trial: Early Insights from WSBA President-Elect’s Judicial Perspective

Derek Chauvin trial with Judge Tollefson commenting on KING 5

Very little about the trial against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is standard.

The mere fact that there is a trial is somewhat unusual. Police-involved deaths rarely result in prosecutions, let alone convictions of the officers involved. (Despite about 1,000 police-involved deaths per year, since 2015 only 121 officers have been arrested on charges of murder or manslaughter resulting in 44 convictions, according to the New York Times.) Few police-involved deaths are as widely well-known as the summer day in 2020 and the now-infamous video showing Chauvin kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, ending in Floyd’s death. And certainly, never before has such an intensely high-profile criminal case taken place amid the unprecedented courtroom restrictions to amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

On March 29, the prosecution and defense made their opening statements in the Hannepin County Courthouse and the prosecution called its first witness. Chauvin faces three felony charges of second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. (Three other former Minneapolis officers—Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao—have been criminally charged in Floyd’s death and are awaiting trial.)

The trial is expected to last about four weeks. The defense has yet to present its case while the prosecution continues to call witnesses, who have so far included the Minneapolis police chief, a 911 dispatcher, first responders at the scene, and a number of eye witnesses.

In addition to the preposterously high profile of the case, Judge Peter Cahill faces the challenge of conducting the trial safely to prevent the spread of COVID-19, as well as ensuring his order is carried out to protect jurors’ anonymity in a media spectacle CNN has called “the biggest trial of the streaming TV age.”

Hon. Brian Tollefson
Hon. Brian Tollefson, WSBA President-Elect

“There are many interesting aspects of this case,” said Hon. Brian Tollefson, a retired Pierce County Superior Court Judge and president-elect of the WSBA Board of Governors. “A judge’s top priority is the procedural fairness of the proceedings for both sides,” Tollefson told NWSidebar.

Tollefson recently appeared for a live interview on King 5 news to break down developments during the trial’s first week and offer a judicial perspective. In fact, Tollefson will return for live King 5 interviews every Friday at approximately 4:30 p.m. for the trial’s duration.

Now a principal at Black Robe Dispute Resolution Services, PLLC, Tollefson served on the Pierce County Superior Court bench for over 27 years, during which he was a member of the Superior Court Judges Association (SCJA) Board of Trustees, and other SCJA committees.

Tollefson referenced a number issues that are unusual to this case, as compared to similar cases. For example, he pointed out that the amount of video evidence offered by the state—and that has been admitted so far—is, in his experience, far more than the amount of video evidence in a typical criminal trial.

However, Tollefson stressed that it is still early in the proceedings and he cautioned against making predictions about a case that has yet to be decided. Of course, widespread coverage makes it possible for anyone to watch the case unfold live, with some caveats.

Also of interest to Tollefson is “the gavel-to-gavel TV coverage” in this case. He pointed out that both sides did not agree to this TV coverage.

“The state did not want TV coverage and the defendant did,” Tollefson said.

Also interesting are the COVID-19 protocols that require the 6-feet spacing of participants and the use of masks at all times by all in the court. The only exception so far to this mask-mandate is that the witness while testifying may remove their mask and the attorneys examining the witnesses so far are not using masks.

Even before attorneys began questions during the voir dire process, potential jurors were required to complete extensive questionnaires assessing them on such topics as their beliefs toward law enforcement and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Asked about his own experiences in handling high-profile cases, Tollefson recalled one trial in which he sequestered jurors.

“Jury sequestration is almost always used as a method to avoid accidental or deliberate exposure of jurors to outside information (usually media coverage of a case) that was not admitted in evidence in the trial,” Tollefson said. “It is also used to protect the jury from public influence or pressure. Nowadays, sequestration is rare.”

However, he noted that the jury in the Chauvin trial is even more unique because Cahill has further ordered that the jurors’ identities not be revealed and that their faces be hidden from public broadcasts of the trial.

To hear more of Tollefson’s impressions from the case, watch the next live King 5 interview this Friday, April 9, between 4:30 and 5 p.m.