Pinned to the ground by a Minneapolis police officer's knee, George Floyd's final moments were captured on bystander video and viewed by millions of people around the world in a matter of hours. The May 25 incident became one of the most infamous police encounters in history, sparking unprecedented international protests and renewed discussion about race and policing.
But 10 months later, with opening statements and testimony set to get underway Monday, March 29, in the trial of former officer Derek Chauvin in Floyd's death, jurors will be asked to set aside emotions and take a more nuanced view of the case.
The 15-member jury, which includes three alternates, can expect to take in differing viewpoints on police tactics, hear competing medical opinions and view footage from a number of perspectives as they consider an array of charges that each carry different levels of proof, according to three legal experts who spoke with Forum News Service.
"Of course, the prosecution's going to introduce the video, which is pretty damaging," said David Schultz, a law professor at the University of Minnesota and Mitchell Hamline. "And they're going to introduce the autopsy that says the knee on the neck caused the death. On the other hand, the defense is going to argue that that wasn't the cause of death."
Prosecutors have said Chauvin had his knee on Floyd's neck for approximately 9 minutes while attempting to arrest the 46-year-old Black man on suspicion of passing a counterfeit bill at a grocery store in Minneapolis' Powderhorn Park neighborhood on the evening of May 25, 2020.
Floyd was heard in video gasping for air and calling for his mother before he became unconscious. He was pronounced dead about an hour later.
Schultz said he anticipates the defense may argue that Floyd died as a result of other causes: He posthumously tested positive for COVID-19, was found to have heart disease, and methamphetamine and fentanyl were found in his system.
"For the prosecution, even if they can show that Chauvin caused his death, they're going to have to prove his mental state," Schultz said. "You have to remember that, under state law, police officers are authorized to use force in several situations."
Jurors will have options, opportunity for compromise
Chauvin, 45, faces three homicide charges, each with different standards of proof:
- Second-degree murder alleges he caused Floyd's death, without intent, while committing or attempting to commit a felony — third-degree assault.
- Third-degree murder alleges he caused Floyd's death "by perpetrating an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind, without regard for human life."
- Second-degree manslaughter alleges he caused Floyd's death "by his culpable negligence, creating an unreasonable risk and taking a chance of causing death or great bodily harm."
Those charges give jurors some discretion and lead to the possibility that they may reach a compromise verdict when it comes time to deliberate, said Joseph Daly, an emeritus professor at St. Paul's Mitchell Hamline School of Law.
But he said prosecutors wouldn't include any charges they don't reasonably believe could result in a conviction, which requires a unanimous vote of all 12 jurors.
"The obligation of a prosecutor is to do justice," Daly said. "You only bring charges you believe you can win, that you can prove beyond a reasonable doubt."
Another Minneapolis officer, Mohamed Noor, was convicted of third-degree murder in the 2017 shooting death of Justine Damond, but he was acquitted of a second-degree charge.
Experts said that's a higher bar to clear, because prosecutors must show that Chauvin, who was trained by his department in neck-restraint tactics, used unnecessary force in the course of attempting to arrest a suspect.
But Richard Frase, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, said he doesn't believe it should be hard to prove that Chauvin's knee on Floyd's neck for an extended period of time was a “substantial causal factor” in the victim's death.
To prove second-degree murder, Frase said authorities only need to show that Chauvin was committing a felony that posed a “special danger” to human life. In allowing third-degree assault as a qualifying offense, he said Minnesota offers much broader criteria than most states under the "felony murder doctrine."
"It doesn't require, really, any proof of an intent to kill, or even of recklessness as to death, " Frase said. "It's just intent to commit the felony, and then death resulted during the commission of that felony."
Case unlike other deadly police incidents
Other police officers in the state have been put on trial for fatal encounters, most prominently for the shooting deaths of Damond and Philando Castile. But experts said those cases had different dynamics.
A shooting is a reaction that happens in the blink of an eye, usually with officers explaining they feared for their lives. Chauvin's use-of-force was an ongoing action — even continuing roughly 3 minutes after officers observed that they could not find a pulse.
"There is absolutely no self-defense element here," Frase said. "There was plenty of time to assess and reassess the need for continued force over that period of time, and red flags start popping up toward the end of that time."
Still, the professors said jurors historically have been deferential to police officers and the dangers of their profession. And it's the prosecution that has the burden of providing every element of each charge "beyond a reasonable doubt."
One major factor that remains to be seen is whether Chauvin himself will take the witness and publicly explain his actions for the first time. But that would also subject the officer to cross-examination from the prosecution. The defense has no obligation to call any witnesses or present any evidence.
"There is absolutely no self-defense element here. There was plenty of time to assess and reassess the need for continued force over that period of time, and red flags start popping up toward the end of that time."
— Richard Frase, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School
Schultz said he thinks it is unlikely that Chauvin will testify because "I don't see anything at this point that he gains from it." Frase, though, believes jurors may hear from the former officer — noting he has a clean record, unlike most criminal defendants who choose not to testify because it allows for the introduction of past convictions.
Second-degree murder carries a maximum of 40 years in prison, while third-degree murder carries 25 years and second-degree manslaughter carries 10 years. But state sentencing guidelines would likely result in a lesser sentence for Chauvin, who has no criminal history.
A standard sentence for both unintentional second-degree and third-degree murder is roughly 10 1/2 to 15 years, while manslaughter is about 3 1/2 to 4 3/4 years. However, prosecutors are seeking an aggravated sentence based on the "particular cruelty" shown toward Floyd.
If convicted of multiple counts, Minnesota law prescribes that Chauvin would only be sentenced on the most serious offense because all the charges stem from a "single behavioral incident."
KEY STORIES TO READ BEFORE TRIAL:
- As Derek Chauvin stands trial, the world watches Minnesota
- The risks of police restraint
- Minnesota law enforcement 'ready' to address 'flashpoints' around trial
- Communities of color brace for fresh wave of trauma
- Minneapolis teen opens up about her viral George Floyd video
- Minneapolis City Attorney: Timing of Floyd lawsuit settlement reflected need to act fast
- Trial puts cameras front, center of Hennepin courtroom
- Derek Chauvin jury set, opening arguments begin Monday in the death of George Floyd
Daly, who taught Chauvin's defense attorney Eric Nelson, said both sides have assembled strong legal teams, with lawyers who are likeable and should be able to effectively guide jurors through the lengthy process of presenting evidence in a case that is being watched by the entire world.
"I think everybody in the courtroom understands that this probably is the most important criminal case they've ever been involved in," Daly said. "It's probably one of the most important criminal cases the United States has ever had. But these lawyers are up to it. It's going to be like watching the World Series between two evenly matched, really good teams."
VIDEO: Minneapolis police bodycam footage, May 25, 2020