EXPLAINER: Did mask hamper Chauvin's image at murder trial?

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In this screen grab from video, defense attorney Eric Nelson, left, defendant, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, right, listen, Tuesday, April 13, 2021, as Hennepin County Judge PeterCahill presides over motions in the trial of Chauvin 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)

MINNEAPOLIS – The mask that former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin was required to wear during most of his trial in George Floyd ’s death hid his reaction to testimony, including any signs of sympathy or remorse that legal experts said could make a difference to jurors. As his attorney delivered closing arguments in his defense, his mask came off.

Coronavirus concerns forced Chauvin and other participants to wear masks except when they were addressing the court. Chauvin, wearing a light gray suit with a blue shirt and blue tie, removed his mask Monday while his defense attorney presented his closing arguments to jurors. While prosecutors made their case, though, he kept his mask on with his eyes mostly focused on taking notes.

Chauvin elected to not testify in his own defense, so the enduring image of him was his impassive expression from last May captured on video by a teenager who filmed him holding Floyd to the ground for 9 minutes, 29 seconds. The girl called Chauvin’s stare “cold” and “heartless.”

Prosecutors repeatedly displayed the image to the courtroom, and Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo alluded to the white former officer's facial expression as he explained how he had violated department policy by kneeling on the Black man's neck for so long.

Legal experts said that image — and the challenge of replacing it in jurors' minds with Chauvin's reactions during trial — may have hampered the defense.

“Every trial has a hero and a villain,” said Ryan Pacyga, a defense attorney who followed the trial. “He looks like a villain.”

Trial lawyers, who have long practiced the art of courtroom dramaturgy, send subtle hints to jurors about a defendant through their looks and body language. They say it's important because it humanizes the defendant.

“You’ve got to find a way for the jury to care for them,” Pacyga said.