EXPLAINER: Could mask hamper ex-officer's image with jurors?

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Darnella Frazier

In this image from video provided by Darnella Frazier, Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin kneels on the neck of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Monday, May 25, 2020. The former Minneapolis police officer charged with killing Floyd went on trial Monday, March 29, 2021. For jurors at Chauvin's murder trial, the enduring image of the defendant is his impassive expression as he gazed at the teenager filming his knee pinning Floyd's neck what the girl called his "cold" and "heartless" stare. (Darnella Frazier via AP)

The face mask that former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin has been required to wear during his trial in George Floyd's death has hidden his reaction to testimony, including any sympathy or remorse that legal experts say can make a difference to jurors.

Because coronavirus concerns have forced Chauvin and other participants to wear masks except when they're addressing the court, the enduring image of the defendant throughout the trial has been his impassive expression from last May as he gazed at the teenager filming his knee pinning Floyd's neck. The girl, who captured the encounter on her cellphone, called Chauvin's stare “cold" and "heartless."

Prosecutors have repeatedly displayed the image in the courtroom, and Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo alluded to the white former officer's facial expression as he explained why he violated department policy by kneeling on the Black man's neck for an extended period.

Legal experts say the image — and the challenge of replacing it in jurors' minds with Chauvin's reactions during trial — could hamper the defense.

“Every trial has a hero and a villain,” said Ryan Pacyga, a defense attorney who has been following 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.

But the pandemic has changed how the trial works.


The question was important to Chauvin's defense before the trial even began. His defense attorneys attempted to weed out potential jurors who had already formed strong opinions about the former officer. But jurors have watched video of Floyd's arrest and heard from witnesses who expressed strong feelings about Chauvin.

“He didn’t care. It seemed as if he didn’t care what we were saying,” said 18-year-old Darnella Frazier, one of several witnesses who testified through tears.

Chauvin didn't appear to show any emotion during the videos or testimony as he scribbled notes on a notepad. But it also would be difficult to see if he was affected because the bottom half of his face is hidden behind a face mask.

“I wonder if watching these videos causes him some pain and agony? I don’t know,” said Joseph Daly, emeritus professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota.


Research by legal scholars has shown that defendants who appear to show remorse may have an advantage with juries.

“People who look more angry are more likely to be viewed as being a criminal,” said Kim MacLin, a professor at the University of Northern Iowa who specializes in psychology and law.

She conducted an experiment that found jurors in a mock trial were more likely to acquit if they saw an image of the defendant that seemed remorseful. Other research has shown that juries deciding whether to sentence someone to death are more lenient when a defendant seems to show remorse.

“It is something that juries, by human nature, think about. What sort of person are we dealing with here?” said Susan Bandes, an emeritus professor at DePaul University College of Law.

She noted that Chauvin already has a “remorse deficit" due to his actions during Floyd's arrest, adding, “That look on his face as captured in the video is so powerful."

Defense attorneys often try to cast defendants in a positive way by making sure they are wearing a suit that fits, getting them to smile at breaks in proceedings or asking their family or friends to appear in the courtroom.

Chauvin's defense attorney touched him on the shoulder while he was introduced during jury selection, when Chauvin was allowed to briefly take his mask off.

Daly said it is a way for the attorney to send a subtle message to jurors: “I'm not afraid of this guy.”


Legal experts say that Chauvin's defense attorney has a lot to weigh in deciding whether to put Chauvin on the stand, but one factor could be showing a different side to the former officer. Witnesses are allowed to take their masks off while they testify.

Pacyga, the defense attorney, said as he thinks the defense's strategy could be headed towards having Chauvin testify, especially if they feel there is a chance of getting him acquitted of the charges.

“You’ve got to get this jury in Chauvin’s shoes in some way, shape or form,” he said. “Otherwise he looks like the most callous person in the world.”


Find AP’s full coverage of the death of George Floyd at: https://apnews.com/hub/death-of-george-floyd


This story corrects that Chauvin's defense attorney touched Chauvin on the shoulder when he introduced him during jury selection, not at the beginning of each day.