Lingering questions from two high-profile questions

The Examiner

After a year in which the courts were largely dormant, we’ve now seen the conclusion of two major homicide trials, complete with TV coverage from inside the courtroom.

One is the Cass County trial of Kylr Yust, a Kansas City man charged and convicted by a jury last week in the death of two of his former girl friends who disappeared in 2007 and 2016 respectively.

Ken Garten

The other is the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, convicted in the death of George Floyd, who died in police custody on a Minneapolis street, after Chauvin knelt with his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes.

In following each of these cases, a number of circumstances I find interesting.

One such circumstance is the juries that served.

Because of prolific news accounts and publicity surrounding the Yust case in the Kansas City area, the court went to St. Charles County in the St. Louis area to select a jury of individuals who had not been exposed to all of the publicity surrounding the case over the years.

The St. Charles County jury was then transported to Harrisonville and put up for a week to serve in the case, uncommon steps in a case but appropriate where pretrial publicity in the Kansas City area was so immense that assimilating a jury without preconceived notions about the case would have been a challenge.

As for the Chauvin case, and its vast and unmitigated worldwide publicity, racial overtones, police misconduct overtones, and the fact that the offense conduct charged was captured on video that went viral for the whole world to see, I can’t imagine what might be going through the heads of jurors.

Would they have been swayed by an awareness that if they did not find Chauvin guilty, widespread civil unrest, and threats to the well-being to the jurors were a distinct likelihood? I certainly thought about that.

Chauvin was a decorated Minneapolis police officer with 19 years of service, and Floyd was a very large man with a significant rap sheet who was under arrest for suspicion of criminal activity, passing a counterfeit bill.

Yust’s victims were young, innocent teenage girls.

Chauvin ended up being convicted on all counts charged against him, second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. He will go to prison for a long, long time.

As for Yust, prosecutors sought convictions on two counts of first-degree murder, which would carry a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Instead, the jury convicted on one count of second-degree murder and another of voluntary manslaughter, offenses which are parolable, whereby, if Yust leads a full life, he has a distinct chance of getting out someday.

And while Yust’s defense team may have appeared subdued when the verdicts were announced, I have to think there was some measure of satisfaction in that outcome.

It appeared to me that prosecutors in both cases took the approach to vilify both defendants as heartless and evil killers. That is what prosecutors do.

And my impression of the general appearance and demeanor of the defendants in each case was that Chauvin always had a scowl on his face, and just looked to me from general appearance like the angry man that prosecutors were painting him to be.

I thought Yust, on the other hand, made a surprisingly good appearance, just from visual impressions of TV coverage. Sitting at the counsel table in a tasteful business suit with his defense team, he was not someone I would look at and immediately think: “That’s a bad dude,” something I thought Chauvin exuded by his appearance.

A huge difference in the trial strategies of the defense teams: Yust took the witness stand in his own defensel. Chauvin exercised his constitutional right to remain silent.

This is a tough call sometimes. If the defendant takes the stand, he is subject to cross-examination by the prosecution. This can turn a case one way or the other. If the prosecutor owns the defendant, as prosecutors often do when a defendant take the stand, it can seal a defendant’s fate, and not for the better.

However, in cases like these, where the defendants are vilified with testimony from crying mothers, and fellow police officers that condemn to the depths of hell the conduct and character of the accused, sometimes the high-risk strategy of putting the defendant on the stand and letting them fend for themselves on cross-examination can have the effect of humanizing the defendant, and casting them in a relatively sympathetic light not shown by the prosecution’s evidence.

Watching the trial testimony of Yust, who took the stand and tried to blame his deceased brother for the homicides with which he was charged obviously did not convince the jury of his innocence, but I can’t help but think that the impression he made, which impressed me, helped to humanize him to the jury, and may explain why the jury, while obviously believing he killed the victims, saw fit to convict not of first-degree murder on either count, but of lesser offenses on each.

And while Monday morning quarterbacking is easy, I can’t help but think that if Chauvin’s defense team had put him on the stand with a humble, sympathetic account of his background as a decorated cop, why he did what he did the day George Floyd died, his regret and remorse for the horrible unintended result, his outcome in the case certainly couldn’t have been any worse.