Henry King Jr. was a utility worker in Southern California when he was picked as a juror in one of the nation’s most notable televised trials: the case against four Los Angeles police officers accused in the beating of a Black motorist, Rodney King.
King Jr., no relation to Rodney King, had seen the now-infamous camcorder footage of the traffic stop on March 3, 1991, and found himself as a key player in the courtroom drama the following year. The jury’s decision nearly 30 years ago to acquit the officers — three white and one Hispanic — unleashed days of deadly rioting that devastated parts of Los Angeles and cleaved the city’s communities along racial lines.
Now, King Jr. says that while he’s aware that the trial in Minneapolis of former Police Officer Derek Chauvin is winding down with closing arguments Monday, his thoughts are with the panel of 12 jurors tasked with delivering a verdict — one that could become a catalyst for a fresh wave of protests like the ones that rocked dozens of American cities last year with the killing of George Floyd.
“This reminds me so much of my time and what we were going through,” King Jr., 78, said.
“They’re going to be going through a lot,” he said of the jurors in Chauvin’s trial. “I feel for them. They’re going to have a tough time, no matter which way they go.”
Trials against police officers accused of excessive force or homicide remain rare, and such cases have become rallying cries for substantive changes to policing, particularly in communities of color. But given the intense scrutiny in the trial of Chauvin, the white officer charged in the death of Floyd, a Black man, after he knelt on his neck, the deliberation and outcome are certain to be grueling on the jurors, King Jr. said.
He added: “It’s going to be traumatic for them.”
The jury must consider whether Chauvin is guilty of any or all of the three charges against him: second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. He faces a maximum of 40 years in prison.
During the course of the trial, the proceedings have taken a toll on some. On a day when parts of the video of Chauvin’s encounter with Floyd were played multiple times, the courtroom stopped for a juror who was having a “stress-related reaction” and had been having trouble sleeping.
Former jurors in similarly high-profile trials have described wrestling with their decisions long after the spotlight fades, suffering mental health issues, even facing death threats from strangers who disagreed with the result.
King Jr. said it got so bad that he left his home and retreated to a cabin about 200 miles outside of Los Angeles, where he was able to “let things settle down.”
The ensuing days of unrest, in which more than 50 people were killed across Los Angeles, weighed heavily on King Jr. as he thought perhaps a different verdict would have averted the violence. But he’s come to peace with his decision, he said.
“I’m OK because I still wouldn’t have changed my verdict because of what people thought,” he added. “Even my own family, though, my own mother thought, ‘Why did you vote that way?'”
The racial makeup of the jury at the time also garnered headlines because none of the 12 jurors were identified as Black, though one was of Hispanic heritage and another was Asian American. But in 2012, King Jr. revealed in a Scripps Newspapers interview that he is of mixed race: his father is part Black and his mother is white.
While he said he’s unashamed of his background and identifies now as being part Black, his racial identity was not something that he regularly talked about growing up and people assumed during the trial he was only white because of his appearance. He became public about his racial identity, he said, because he wants people to know his decision to find the officers not guilty wasn’t tied to racist ideologies but the result of the evidence presented at trial.
A jury’s racial makeup, particularly in police-related trials, has become increasingly scrutinized in recent years as criminal justice reform advocates and scholars argue that a lack of jury diversity can play a role in whether a trial is fair and impartial.
A University of California, Berkeley, study in 2020 found that prosecutors in hundreds of California appellate court trials examined from 2006 to 2018 used peremptory challenges to strike Black jurors from nearly 75 percent of cases and Latino jurors from about 28 percent of cases, while white jurors were removed from only 0.4 percent of cases.
In Chauvin’s trial, among the 12 jurors and two alternates, there are six white women and two white men; three Black men and one Black woman; and two mixed-race women.
The racial diversity of the jury is especially notable because Hennepin County, where the trial is being held, has only a 14 percent Black population, according to census data.
In addition, jurors in their questionnaires expressed their views about the racial justice reckoning that engulfed American discourse over the past year and their attitudes surrounding race and policing — with some feeling favorably about either the concept of the Black Lives Matter or the Blue Lives Matter movements.
Such feelings didn’t prompt their immediate dismissal as potential jurors, marking a “subtle sea change” in how racial biases are treated in the courtroom, said Sonali Chakravarti, an associate professor of government at Wesleyan University who has written about how the Black Lives Matter movement has shaped the Chauvin trial.
“We’re seeing a really clear improvement over past trials related to police violence,” she said. “That’s important because I can’t think of a case that’s got more scrutiny since Rodney King or the Central Park jogger case.”
She added that there is an “enormous burden” on this jury to come to a conclusion that might appease those already distrustful of the criminal justice system while balancing their own consciences that justice is being served.
Charlene Cooke, a jury member in the 2018 trial of former Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke, was among a handful of jurors who later spoke to the media to express how she arrived at the verdict. Van Dyke, who is white, was found guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery in the shooting death of Laquan McDonald, a Black teenager, in a case that set off demonstrations in Chicago and demands for police reform.
Cooke, 62, was the lone Black juror in Van Dyke’s trial, and said she was especially determined to show she was carefully analyzing the evidence — and that her verdict wasn’t clouded by biases or that it had to automatically satisfy the Black community’s expectations.
Her advice to jurors in the Chauvin trial: “Whatever choice you make, regardless of who thinks it’s right or wrong, if you know your choice is right, just stand by it.”
After Van Dyke’s trial concluded, Cooke returned to her job as a FedEx driver, but instead of slipping into obscurity, she was often recognized on her route. One woman surprised Cooke by coming up behind her in a store to hug her; others confronted her, lashing out, “How dare you?”
Cooke said she had to overcome the feelings of “why me” for such a critical trial and the trauma associated with repeatedly watching McDonald lose his life on the police dashcam video. But she found support in those who knew her.
To the jurors in the Chauvin trial, she said, “if you’re feeling overwhelmed, don’t allow yourself to sit back and wallow in it.”
King Jr. said it’s important to recognize that the jurors in the Chauvin trial may continue to grapple with trauma resulting from hearing emotional testimony and watching the video of Floyd struggling in his final moments.
After the trial in the Rodney King beating ended, he said, he and the others jurors would meet as a group to support one another and talk about their experiences. Some spoke of mental health issues. Many, like King Jr., tried to put the events behind them.
“To anybody who thinks they know what these current jurors are going through, don’t prejudge the case and think you know how easy it is,” he said. “Just try to understand that while they’re fulfilling their civic duty, they are sacrificing a lot — and they never asked for any of this.”