The last moments of George Floyd’s life were laid bare last year by the indelible footage of a police officer kneeling on his neck. But legal experts say the central dispute in the Minneapolis trial of Derek Chauvin, the former cop accused of murdering Floyd, will likely boil down to one key question: How exactly did Floyd die?
“If the defense can raise enough doubt about the cause of death,” said David Schultz, a visiting professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, “Derek Chauvin is not guilty.”
Almost a year after Floyd’s death on May 25, which touched off protests across the U.S. last summer, prosecutors and Chauvin’s defense will begin making their case Monday for whether Chauvin should be held criminally responsible.
This won’t be an open-and-shut case, according to legal experts who spoke to Yahoo News about the trial. Schultz, who also teaches at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., estimated that the trial could take at least a month, including one to two weeks for jury deliberations, depending on the amount of witnesses, evidence, etc.
And what might seem plain to some people — a police officer appearing to cut off the air supply of a person in his custody — will likely be called into question by Chauvin’s defense.
Floyd’s death was declared a homicide about a week after the incident, according to the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office, which announced June 1 that Floyd, 46, died from “cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression.” The report also listed “other significant conditions,” including heart disease, fentanyl intoxication and “recent methamphetamine use.”
Floyd’s family commissioned two independent examiners to conduct a separate autopsy, according to the family’s attorneys. Their findings concluded that Floyd died from asphyxiation from sustained pressure. Dr. Michael Baden, one of the independent examiners who also performed an autopsy on Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager who was fatally shot by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer in 2014, said “there is no other health issue that could cause or contribute” to Floyd’s death.
Dmitriy Shakhnevich, a New York lawyer and professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told Yahoo News that he believes Floyd’s health conditions, per the county’s report, will be brought up by Chauvin’s defense. The judge, Shaknevich said — in this case Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill — will be tasked with keeping the topic of Floyd’s health within the scope of the case.
Cahill’s discretion will also apply to Floyd’s May 2019 arrest. He ruled last Friday that jurors will be allowed to hear evidence from the incident in which police officers took Floyd into custody after finding drugs on him, USA Today reported, citing court documents that detail Floyd’s arrest.
“The judge has to weigh whether or not the usefulness of that prior arrest is outweighed by the defenses desire to kind of malign George Floyd’s character,” Shakhnevich said. “There's this understanding that what the defense is trying to do for their client is make Floyd look bad.”
Chauvin’s defense has argued that the arrest, which is captured on body camera footage, is relevant because new evidence came to light in December that shows that authorities found drugs in a car Floyd was in, Associated Press reported, and that the incident is similar to the May 2020 arrest.
Mentioning the arrest could, in Schultz’s words, put “the victim on trial.” But it could also show that, in the 2019 instance, “police were able to de-escalate the matter and it didn’t result in George Ford's death,” he said, contrary to what occurred last year.
Leading Chauvin’s defense is Eric Nelson, a founding partner of the Minneapolis-based firm Halberg Criminal Defense, who’s been practicing law for 20 years and has experience litigating homicide and drug cases. Nelson is representing Chauvin through the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, a union for public safety workers that’s covering Chauvin’s defense.
The prosecution is being led by Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who was assigned the case by the governor. Ellison, a former U.S. representative for the state’s Fifth Congressional District and a Democrat, became the first African American and Muslim American to be elected to statewide office when he took office as attorney general in 2019.
For Ellison and his team, the challenge will be to overcome the latitude that officers have historically been given in use-of-force cases, both by the law and by jurors.
Under state law and Supreme Court doctrine, “police officers enjoy quite a bit of qualified immunity to use force on the job,” Schultz said. “So what the prosecution is facing a challenge in, is saying that the actions of Derek Chauvin were so unreasonable that they crossed the line from constitutionally and statutorily authorized use of force into something that is now criminal.”
The death of Floyd, a Black man, beneath the knee of a white officer also raises the question of how race will factor into the trial.
“The question is, to what degree will the prosecution be making race an explicit part of the case,” said Samuel Sommers, a social psychology professor at Tufts University who studies how race functions in the criminal justice system. “I don't know that they have to. They may just be able to argue that, trust your eyes, you see someone kneeling on a helpless civilian’s neck for minutes and minutes at a time with that person saying that he can't breathe.”
Sommers described the jury, a 12-person panel (plus two alternates and a third person who will be excused if the jury is still intact on Monday) made up of white, Black and multiracial men and women of varying ages, as somewhat surprisingly diverse.
“This is a jury that’s more representative of the county from which it’s drawn than I think some people may have predicted would have been the outcome of jury selection,” said Sommers. “It [seems] like trials like this are often tried in front of predominantly or all-white juries.”
Sommers added that a diverse jury doesn’t guarantee a certain outcome. “But having a racially diverse jury does at least increase the probability of multiple perspectives being considered during deliberations,” he said.
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