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.