Race colors jury selection for alleged Jamar Clark protest shooter

Allen Scarsella
Allen Scarsella is accused of shooting Black Lives Matter protesters outside the 4th Precinct.
Hennepin County Sheriff's Office

Updated 4:20 p.m. | Posted 12:06 p.m.

Jury selection in the shooting trial of 24-year-old Allen Scarsella is still underway, but it appears his case will be judged by a predominantly white jury.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman has said Scarsella, who is white, was motivated by racial hatred when he wounded five African-Americans at a Black Lives Matter protest on Nov. 23, 2015. The victims were participating in an 18-day long protest outside a north Minneapolis police station, just blocks from the site of where 24-year-old Jamar Clark was shot and killed by a Minneapolis police officer on Nov. 15.

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Scarsella has pleaded not guilty to seven felony counts, including one count of first degree assault.

On Monday, a few dozen potential jurors filled out questionnaires containing their opinions on Black Lives Matter, guns and race as well as their prior knowledge of the incident at the heart of the trial.

More than a dozen of those potential jurors have been called into the courtroom this week to clarify some of their responses to the questions. A few of those jurors were dismissed based on the answers they gave in court. One of them, an African-American man, told the judge and attorneys he couldn't be fair to the defendant.

Several prospective jurors expressed mixed opinions about Black Lives Matter. Some said while they agreed with the group's ideology, they were critical of marches that shut down interstate highways.

One potential juror, an unnamed white man from Shorewood, said he initially thought the group was fomenting a "war on police." And he said he thought their views about police were one-sided. The man, who identified himself as a Vietnam War veteran, also moderated his view a bit, saying he understands police "don't always get it right."

One white prospective juror had much stronger views about the group. He called Black Lives Matter a "hate group," and said it is "based on a lie." The lie, he said, was the rallying cry, "Hands up don't shoot!", which came from the eyewitness accounts of the shooting of Michael Brown, a black man by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo. However, the county attorney in Missouri, who declined to press charges against the officer, disputed the assertion that Brown had his hands up at the time of the shooting.

Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Judith Hawley asked that the man be dismissed, in part, because of his strong views about Black Lives Matter. The man said he could be fair to witnesses who were affiliated with the group, but Hawley said she didn't believe him.

Judge Hilary Caligiuri denied the request to strike the man. She said she was satisfied he could be a "credible juror."

Both the prosecution and defense will have several more chances to remove potential jurors from the panel.

Several of the potential jurors appeared to have very vague recollections about the events which led up to the shooting.

Three people confused the police shootings of Clark and Philando Castile, who was shot by a St. Anthony police officer a half year after Clark.

How much or how little jurors know about cases coming into a trial is less important than any unwavering biases they may possess, said attorney Joe Friedberg.

"You have to ferret out people who have strong opinions," said Friedberg, who has represented corporate executives, athletes and politicians in high-profile cases during his more than 40-year career in criminal defense. And while it's beneficial for attorneys to pick jurors who will be sympathetic to their cases, Friedberg said it's most important to find jurors who can presume the defendant innocent until proven guilty.

Jury selection in this case has already gone longer than another recent high profile case. Lawyers in the ISIS terrorism trial last year in federal court took just two days to form a panel.

Attorney Fred Goetz said the lawyers in the Scarsella case are using a hybrid system that combines the use of juror questionnaires and one-on-one interviews. He said the process is time consuming, but warranted in cases that have attracted a lot of media attention.

"In a high profile case like this where you have all kinds of social issues that people are quite rightly very passionate about, that's going to give rise to people expressing feelings, often strong feelings," said Goetz, who is not involved in this trial, but who has represented defendants accused of crimes that received a lot of media attention. "And that I think quite rightly ... would and should require individualized questioning before the whole panel is asked questions."

Hennepin Co. juries generally reflect the area.
Source: Minnesota Courts. The eligible juror population is established by the MN2010 American Community Survey compiled by Minnesota State Demographic Center. It compiles population ages 18 to 70, who are not institutionalized,are citizens, speak English at home or are able to speak English "very well" or "well". Jurors are counted as "All jurors who report for service and return questionnaire."
MPR News graphic

The racial makeup of the jury pool appears to be roughly consistent with the demographics of Hennepin County. According to 2010 Census data, African-Americans made up 8 percent of county residents and they made up 7 percent of jurors.

During a group questioning session Thursday, many of the white potential jurors shared experiences of hearing people close to them use racial epithets. And many strongly denounced racism. One woman, who said she was born in Canada and unfamiliar with American race relations, said her ex-husband used to say derogatory things about African-Americans. She said she rejects that thinking.

One other critical matter was resolved Friday.

Defense attorneys have been arguing to suppress all evidence recovered by police from Scarsella's iPhone. According to court documents, Scarsella's phone contained text messages allegedly sent between Scarsella and three other men who have been charged in connection with the shooting.

Laura Heinrich, one of two public defenders representing Scarsella, argued in court this week that the search warrant used to explore the phone's contents was "overly broad."

Prosecutors, though, warned that excluding the phone evidence would gut their case.

Caligiuri late Friday denied the motion to suppress Scarsella's iPhone data.