Jurors in Derek Chauvin’s trial were offered free counseling

By: - December 7, 2021 6:00 am

Brandon Mitchell, a juror in the trial of Derek Chauvin, speaks to a reporter, April 28, 2021. Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer.

Before serving as a juror in the Derek Chauvin trial, Brandon Mitchell had never watched the full video of George Floyd dying under Chauvin’s knee on a Minneapolis street. 

The Minneapolis North basketball coach had seen only part of the video that rocked the world and set his hometown ablaze. Mitchell tried to “avoid it at all costs.” 

When he got on the Chauvin trial, he had to view the troubling video over and over as evidence.

The lengthy trial was potentially so traumatizing that when it ended, Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill took the unusual step of offering jurors free counseling, according to Mitchell and another juror. 

Mitchell had thought about trying to get out of jury duty, but he reluctantly did his civic duty, filling out a questionnaire and showing up at the courthouse for questioning by attorneys.

Once the jury was seated, there were three Black men on the jury, and he was the only one who grew up in north Minneapolis and wasn’t an immigrant. 

George Floyd video on repeat

By the end of the trial, Mitchell and other jurors were shown 166 video clips related to Floyd’s killing, often showing Floyd pleading for his life or becoming unresponsive. Some videos were played so many times that jurors memorized every scene.  

Sometimes, Mitchell said, he would look at the wall rather than the video monitor and just listen. 

“I was trying to find ways to stop watching,” he said in an interview. “I wanted to escape the room at that point.”

He did not get numb to seeing Floyd’s final 9 minutes of life.

“It never got less grueling,” Mitchell said.

Seven months later, the images are still seared into his memory. 

Nikolas Nadeau, spokesperson for Hennepin County District Court, said he could not confirm or deny that Cahill offered counseling to jurors. But both Mitchell and juror Journee Howard said Cahill made the offer in a private meeting with jurors after their guilty verdicts were announced. 

So far, neither juror has sought counseling, although both indicated they probably should.

While federal courts have a program where jurors can get counseling, as of 2015, state courts in Texas, North Carolina, Minnesota and other states had just begun experimenting with counseling programs, according to The Atlantic. 

As another jury prepares to hear evidence in the Kimberly Potter police shooting case, jurors in the Chauvin case say they will never forget what they saw and heard during the nearly month-long trial.

The trauma of serving on a jury

Gregory Mize, a retired trial judge and judicial fellow at the National Center for State Courts who helps state courts improve their jury trial systems, said he doesn’t know of any state that funds counseling for jurors, although judges or court systems sometimes secure volunteer therapists to help jurors. Some Canadian provinces do offer counseling.

As a trial judge, Mize presided over many gruesome cases that were disturbing for both him and the jurors. 

Patrick Baillie, a lawyer and psychologist, chairs the Canadian Juries Commission, which is creating mental health training and support programs for Canadian jurors. He said it’s common for jurors to have traumatic reactions to the evidence.

On the third day of the Chauvin trial, less than an hour into testimony, a juror stood up, waved at the judge and gestured toward her stomach, signaling that she was sick.

Cahill stopped the trial and the juror left the courtroom for about 20 minutes, later explaining on the stand that she had a “stress-related reaction” and had been having trouble sleeping. 

Baillie said most jurors aren’t prepared for the rigors of trials involving violent crimes. They see autopsy photos. They’re sometimes handed the murder weapon. In one trial, a meat hook that victims were hung on was passed around to jurors, Baillie said. 

“To me that’s just entirely gratuitous,” he said.

Jurors are expected to pay attention throughout, no matter how brutal the evidence.

“You can’t tune out for half an hour,” Baillie said. 

And the roomful of strangers — jurors — aren’t allowed to discuss the trial with anyone, not even each other, until jury deliberations begin.

“How many of us spend our entire day doing something and when they get home and somebody says, ‘How was your day?’ you can’t answer that question?” Baillie said. “So the social support is not there, and then you’re dealing with very graphic evidence in some cases. In the Chauvin case — how many times do I have to go through this video? How many times do I literally have to watch a man die?”

For many jurors, Baillie said,“you finish the trial and that video is still playing.”

“The general sense in the U.S. is ‘thank you for your time, you’re free to go’ and that’s it,” Baillie said. “I think our responsibility is to make sure those people are looked after when they’ve done their job.”

‘Stuff that I can’t really shake’

Howard, a biracial juror from rural Pine River, said Cahill — whom she described as “amazing” — told jurors to contact his office if they had any psychological concerns or post-traumatic stress from the trial. 

“I think he’s such a stand-up guy,” Howard said. “He was more concerned for our safety than probably some of us even because he understood the gravity of the situation, I think, more than we did.” 

Howard said Cahill strongly suggested the jurors take up the offer of counseling, but she hasn’t done so, even though she feels like she probably has symptoms of PTSD.

“It’s different being in it than being from the outside looking in,” Howard said of serving on the jury. “It’s just … traumatic.”

By the end of the trial, Howard, too, had memorized the videos after seeing them so often.

“I would say that there’s definitely some PTSD there that I probably haven’t acknowledged yet,” she said in June. “And I still have thoughts or memories or whatever —  stuff that I can’t really shake, so that’s … where therapy comes in.”

Howard said the jurors were all very anxious.

“It did take a toll on all of us,” Howard said. “It was just very, very, you know, a lot of tension and a lot of anxiety for sure.”

‘I was really lost’

Mitchell reached his breaking point the weekend before the prosecution finished making its case. It was a Saturday afternoon, and he had a lot of time on his hands. He didn’t want to return to the trial that Monday. He wasn’t sure he’d made the right decision in serving because of the toll it was taking on him.

“I really had to give myself a pep talk just to continue forward,” he said. “I was really lost.”

The hardest part of the trial was hearing Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd, testify. Mitchell said he could relate to all of it, as a brother.

“It was very much a mirror of my childhood,” he said. 

Finally, he let out all of the emotion he’d been holding tight and cried for more than an hour. 

“I just cried and cried and cried,” he said. 

The basketball coach finds himself triggered when his players talk about “interactions” that he worries could lead to encounters with police. Like going to a party. 

Growing up in the neighborhood most of them live in, he faced the same profiling as other Black men — getting stopped by cops over and over. It was just a fact of life. But now, everything’s different.

“It makes me very emotional now,” he said. “Now I worry a lot more than I would have ever before. I’m always worried about what’s going to happen to these young boys.” 

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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. Before joining the staff of the Reformer in 2021 she was a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She and her husband have a daughter, son, and very grand child. In her spare time, she likes to play tennis, jog, garden and attempt to check out all the best restaurants in the metro area.