The rural, biracial juror on the Chauvin trial: ‘It was absolutely traumatic’

By: - June 25, 2021 6:00 am

Journee Howard, a juror in the Derek Chauvin murder trial, comes from rural lake country, where she was one of just two non-white families. Courtesy photo.

Journee Howard grew up in a town of about 900 in lake country, where a Trump rally in nearby Brainerd attracted some 10,000 people last year.

Her biracial family was a rarity. 

Her mom is white and works at a bar; her dad is Black and works as a chef; her uncle is a cop and relatives are in the military, so her views on police brutality and race issues are varied, which is probably why the 25-year-old woman was chosen as a juror in Derek Chauvin’s murder trial. Those who didn’t hew too hard to one side or the other of polarizing political debates were often chosen. 

Howard — the second juror to speak publicly since the jury found Chauvin guilty on all counts — was born in the Shakopee area but her family moved north to the Nisswa area when she was a baby. Her hometown is the tiny town of Pine River, north of Nisswa, in the “BLA” — Brainerd Lakes Area.”

The only diversity in town was her biracial family, and one other family with adopted children of color.

“Everyone’s known me since kindergarten, so it was like, no one was ever like racist towards me,” Howard said. “People would say ignorant stuff in school all the time, but it was never malicious. It was just uneducated, you know what I mean? It could have been worse. It could have been a lot worse.”

Her hometown is ruby red, but she and her family are apolitical, she said. 

She was on the student council and did every sport she could — ice skating, gymnastics, volleyball and basketball — and went to Central Lakes College in Brainerd for a couple of years before moving to South Carolina, then finishing school in Moorhead and moving to Minneapolis in late 2018, where she is a model and actress.

Howard said it was like culture shock when she had her first brush with Minneapolis police, who acted like she’d stolen a car after pulling her over for speeding. She was respectful and responsive, but the cops were hostile and aggressive and accused her of lying about whose car she was driving. (It was her boyfriend’s.) 

She was babysitting and had children in the back of the car, which she thinks helped prevent the situation from getting even worse.

“That was kind of an eye-opening situation,” she said. “And that was a very, very mild form (of discrimination) so I was like, man, you know, I can’t imagine what some people go through in the same situation and it could have been … so much worse, so I am thankful that it was not.”

She said the police treated her like a criminal.

“What I saw around here (Pine River) versus what goes on in the city — especially the inner city — is vastly different. Like completely two ends of the spectrum. So that was interesting and enlightening,” she said. “Obviously, again, being who I am, I’m fully aware of how Black and brown people are treated in this country. I was fortunate enough to never have received (that) type of mistreatment until I got down to the cities.”

She’d heard of police brutality cases and discrimination, but never anything like the Chauvin case.

“It was absolutely traumatic, certain things, especially the first day we saw them,” Howard said of the trial and the countless times jurors were presented with video evidence of the murder. “It was very disheartening and gut-wrenching. … I mean, nobody wants to watch someone die over and over and over, let alone one time, so having to be (subjected) to something like that and not only having to watch it, but having to pay attention and having to listen and look for details or listen for whatever that was — you know, certain images, I don’t think I’ll ever get out of my head.” 

She thought the body camera footage was the most important evidence, and breathing expert Martin Tobin was a “fan favorite” for the jury, she said.

“Everyone liked him,” she said of the diminutive Irish doctor who detailed in plain language how Chauvin’s actions led to Floyd’s death. “I really liked the fact that … he wasn’t getting paid. He was just doing this for the good of humanity.”

She was surprised to hear from Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, who testified that Chauvin violated department policies on use of force, de-escalation, neck restraints and rendering aid to someone in distress.

“Hearing his statement and testimony was very big for me,” Howard said.

She has stayed in touch with a handful of jurors, including Brandon Mitchell, the first juror who went public.

“It’s really nice to be able to talk and connect with the people that went through this traumatic experience with you,” she said.

Most of the jurors had safety concerns — they saw protesters with signs and people in streets as they were picked up and dropped off at secret locations by deputies every day for the trial. 

Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill — whom she calls “amazing” — said if any juror had safety concerns, police could be stationed outside their homes.

“He was more concerned for our safety than some of us even because he also understood the gravity of the situation I think more than we did,” she said.

Cahill gave jurors the number of a therapist he recommended, and strongly suggested they seek counseling. She hasn’t done so yet, but probably will. 

By the end of the trial, she’d seen the videos so many times she knew them by heart.

“There’s definitely some (post-traumatic stress) there that I probably haven’t acknowledged,” Howard said. “And I still have thoughts or memories or whatever — stuff that I can’t really shake.”

Recently, she’s been back home — where it’s calm and quiet and a world away from the protests that recently rocked her Uptown neighborhood after the police shooting death of another Black man, Winston Smith.

Chauvin was sentenced Friday by Cahill to 22.5 years in prison. Prosecutors sought a 30-year sentence, while Chauvin’s attorney advocated for probation.

On this subject, Howard didn’t feel qualified to weigh in.

“I find that question very odd. I’m not a judge, nor have I had the training and educational tools to be able to answer that properly,” she said. “That is beyond my scope of knowledge.” 

This story has been updated to include Chauvin’s prison sentence.

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs.