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Trigger Warning: This article discusses the case of George Floyd, which involves murder, police brutality, and speculation about drug addiction. Please read with caution.
Last May, former police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd while the latter was under police custody. This inspired protests against police brutality across the U.S. and throughout the world. Chauvin forced his knee on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds; fellow officers J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane, and Tou Thao stood on the sidelines.
This case became a definitive moment of the Black Lives Matter movement, as it gained a larger following during the summer of 2020. Now, almost a year after Floyd’s tragic death, Chauvin’s three week long trial has finally reached a verdict.
In this article, The Quaker Campus outlines the State v. Chauvin trial from the beginning to the announcement of the verdict on Tuesday, April 20. The trial was overseen by Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill. Chauvin’s defense attorney was Eric Nelson, a family attorney who “rotates as counsel for the legal defense fund of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officer’s Association.”
While the prosecution was composed of many lawyers and attorneys, some of the more prominent figures were former Federal Prosecutor Steve Schliecher, Corporate Attorney Jerry Blackwell, Assistant Attorney General for Minnesota Erin Eldrige, and Assistant Attorney General for Minnesota Matthew Frank.
Police arrested Chauvin on May 29, 2020, charging him with third degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter, but the prosecution later added a second-degree murder charge. When the prosecution had first listed a third-degree murder charge, Judge Cahill dismissed this charge after Chauvin’s defense argued he had not endangered anyone other than Floyd.
However, the final charges were later amended to include third-degree murder after an appeals court ruled that Judge Cahill did not follow precedent. The court of appeals had previously upheld the charge of third-degree murder after former officer Muhamed Noor shot and killed a woman, Justice Diomond, in 2017, setting precedent.
Second-degree unintentional murder did not require the state to prove Chauven’s “intent” to kill Floyd. The third-degree murder charge defined Chauvin’s actions as “perpetrating an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind, without regard for human life.” The second-degree manslaughter charge assumes negligent actions that led to great bodily harm.
In the prosecution’s closing statements, they specified what evidence the State needed to produce to substantiate the charges.
First, the “death of George Floyd must be proven.” Then, the state had to prove that the “defendant’s actions were a substantial causal factor in Mr. Floyd’s death,” and that other causations of death would not remove the defendant from “criminal liability.” Thirdly, the state must prove that “the defendant, at the time of causing the death of George Floyd, was committing or attempting to commit the felony offense of assault in the third degree.”
In this scenario, assault is defined as the defendant “intentionally [applying] unlawful force to Mr. Floyd without his consent, resulting in bodily harm,” and that the accused “inflicted substantial bodily harm to George Floyd.”
A murder in the third degree charge would entail the same first and second elements, as well as specifying that Floyd’s death was caused “by an intentional act that was eminently dangerous to other persons,” and that Chauvin “acted with a mental state consisting of reckless disregard for human life.” Furthermore, the prosecution did not have to prove intent for the third degree charge.
The Jury Selection
The court faced difficulty during the jury selection because of the high-profile nature of the case, as it has been covered nation-wide on major media sources. The jury selection took two weeks and whittled a pool of 300 potential jurors to 12 seated jurors and three alternates who were later dismissed. Each of the jurors were questioned to ensure that they could remain impartial despite any information they were exposed to.
After Minneapolis paid Floyd’s family $27 million in a settlement on March 12, Judge Cahill dismissed two of the seven jurors who had been selected. The dismissals occurred after the defense requested a recall and questioning for the jurors to determine whether knowledge of the settlement would affect their impartiality.
Following the two dismissals, revisiting the jury selection sparked concern over the impartiality of the jury considering the continual national coverage and ongoing protests.
Chauvin’s defense team had also requested the trial be moved outside of Minneapolis to provide a jury pool that was not exposed to extreme publicity of the event and subsequent developments. While there have been multiple examples of previous cases where defense attorneys alleged potential bias of the jury, it is rare to persuade a judge to grant a change of venue.
Judge Cahill denied the request to move the trial on the basis that there would be few areas in Minnesota that the publicity did not affect.
Jurors were kept anonymous for their personal safety and to ensure a fair trial. Though, the jury’s demographics — as well as their thoughts on Black Lives Matter, Chauvin, and Floyd — are now available to the public.
The deciding jury was composed of four White women, two White men, three Black men — two of whom were immigrants — two women who described themselves as multi-racial, and one Black woman. The composition of the jury was more diverse than Hennepin County, Minn.
Since the verdict has been reached, the jurors are free to publicly reveal their own identities, discuss their experiences, and their own deliberations once they are freed from their service.
Summary of Trial Proceedings
Week One, March 29 – April 2
During the first week of Derek Chauvin’s Trial, a series of key witnesses — bystanders on May 25, 2020, the day of Floyd’s death — testified before the court. Darnella Frazier, 17 years old at the time of Floyd’s death, gave emotional testimony in regards to her account of the interaction between Floyd and Chauvin. Frazier took the video that went viral and sparked global outrage: Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck outside of Cup Foods.
Frazier’s testimony offered the jury her standpoint of what occurred on May 25. Just one of the three other minors that testified in the case, Frazier expressed her guilt for not physically intervening to help Floyd. During the time of the incident, Frazier was walking to the grocery store with her younger cousin when they encountered the sight of Floyd pinned underneath Chauvin’s knee. Frazier first attempted to shield her younger cousin from the graphic scene, then returned to record the final moments between Floyd and Chauvin.
Prosecutors also gave Floyd’s girlfriend, Courtney Ross, a chance to share her insights on her and Floyd’s relationship and what he was like as a person. While Ross explained her and Floyd’s shared interest in sports and working out together, she also unpacked their shared addiction to prescription drugs.
While Floyd’s drug use would almost inevitably be brought up by Chauvin’s defense, Ross’s account of how the two became addicted to opioids out of a shared struggle with chronic pain informed the jury of the underlying cause of Floyd’s drug use before the Defense’s argument. Floyd’s siblings, Bridgett and Terrence Floyd, also added to the emotional intensity during the first week of Chauvin’s trial.
The testimony of Ross and Floyd’s siblings emphasized the prosecution’s focus on “spark-of-life” testimony. The Minnesota State Constitution permits spark-of-life testimony to show the humanity or life of the victim.
With the defense using Floyd’s drug use to argue that Chauvin should not be held legally responsible for Floyd’s death, spark-of-life testimony allowed for the prosecution to humanize Floyd’s struggles with addiction. However, it also allowed for the defense to question spark-of-life witnesses regarding Floyd’s drug use in their strategy to implicate the drugs in Floyd’s system as contributing to his death. Medical experts refuted this during the second week of the trial.
Before employing spark-of-life testimony, the lawyers and Judge Cahill first discussed the parameters of the testimonies, as the emotions evoked during spark-of-life testimonies are often considered contradictory to the impartiality of the jurors.
Ultimately, Judge Cahill decided that the spark-of-life witnesses could speak to “Floyd being beloved by his family” but could not refer to him as a gentle giant or offer character evidence.
Other witnesses called to the stand included Christopher Martin, a 19-year-old Cup Foods store clerk, who expressed regret for informing his manager of the counterfeit $20 bill that provoked a 911 phone call by the store.
Bystanders, such as Donald Williams, a mixed martial arts fighter, described awareness of the specific lethal chokehold that was performed on Floyd, leading to his death. Genevieve Hanson, the Minneapolis firefighter that was a first responder to the scene outside of Cup Foods on May 25, testified that she was prevented from administering first aid to Floyd by the police that were present at the scene.
This first week of Chauvin’s trial also featured a testimony from Chauvin’s retired police supervisor, Sergeant David Pleoger, who stated that the excess use of force exerted by Chauvin in the video of Floyd’s arrest and consequential death was not warranted and did not align with the department’s policy regarding use of force.
Pleoger testified that, once Floyd was no longer offering any resistance to the arrest, no other external force was necessary by Chauvin. Lt. Richard Zimmerman, the highest-ranking and senior member of the Minneapolis Police Department, concurred with Sergeant Pleoger, stating that there is no training by the department that encourages officers to kneel on top of the necks of subjects that are handcuffed.
Overall, the first week of Chauvin’s trial brought forth a mix of emotions and a new way of engaging with evidence as Floyd’s death and his actions prior were captured on video. The various video recordings of May 25 were heavily integrated during the course of the first week of Chauvin’s trial, and remained crucial pieces of evidence as the trial led up to the final verdict.
Week Two, April 5 – 9
In the second week of the Chauvin trial, medical examiners gave testimonies regarding Floyd’s cause of death. Dr. Andrew Baker, who conducted the autopsy of George Floyd, testified that Floyd’s death was ruled as a homicide. Baker also stated that the final report said Floyd died of “cardiopulmonary arrest, complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression.” Floyd’s family also had an autopsy done by a private examiner, who said the cause of death was “asphyxiation from sustained pressure.”
During the defense’s questioning, Dr. Baker stated that Floyd’s drug use and heart conditions could have had a role in his death; however, he was firm in saying that Floyd’s cause of death was from “complicating law enforcement subdual.”
Dr. Martin Tobin and Dr. Lindsey Thomas later took the stand to give their professional opinions as expert witnesses.
Dr. Tobin explained that Chauvin’s position was what killed Floyd. Dr. Tobin is an expert on breathing and lung function, and he testified that, since Chauvin’s toes were off the ground when he was kneeling on Floyd’s neck, that would put 91.5 pounds, half of Chauvin’s body weight, on his neck for over nine minutes. Tobin further explained that “on the left side of his lung, it was almost like a surgical humanectomy,” and “it was almost as if a surgeon had gone in and removed the lung.”
Dr. Thomas, who trained Dr. Baker, testified that she agreed with Baker’s conclusions. Thomas believed that a primary cause of Floyd’s death was asphyxia, or low oxygen. She also explained Dr. Baker’s terminology in the cause of death, since the term “cardiopulmonary arrest” just means that the heart stopped beating and that the lungs stopped breathing. She clarified that the term was to differentiate the situation from “cardiac arrest,” which would entail the heart stopped by itself. Cardiopulmonary arrest concludes that the death was unnatural.
Both Dr. Thomas and Dr. Baker agreed that drugs did not have a factor in Floyd’s death.
Following testimonies from the medical examiners was a continued discussion about Floyd’s drug use, this time focusing on forensic evidence. Investigators had found a pipe and some pills in Floyd’s car at the time of arrest.
Brehana Giles, a forensic scientist for the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, testified that both methamphetamine and fentanyl were found in the pills, and that charred residue that tested for THC was found in the pipe, but that marijuana was not found. Susan Neith of NMS labs in Pennsylvania testified that the levels of meth found in the pills ranged from 1.9 percent to 2.9 percent.
James Reyerson of the BCA, a lead investigator of the case, also testified that Floyd, in the video, said, “I ain’t do any drugs,” amending a previous testimony, where he believed he heard “I ate too many drugs.”
Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo testified that officers have “a duty of care” when it comes to people they arrest. Arradondo, who terminated Chauvin’s employment at the MPD considering the Floyd incident, also testified “to continue to apply that level of force to a person proned out, handcuffed behind his back — that, in no way, shape, or form, is anything that is by policy.” Other officers that testified agreed that Chauvin failed to apply his training.
Week Three, April 12 – 16: Pleading the Fifth
On April 12, testimony was given by Dr. Jonathan Rich, who said that Floyd had no previous diagnosis of a heart condition, and also emphasized how thorough he is with the documents. Dr. Rich testified, “All considering, it was a very relatively low level of methamphetamine in his system, so when you look at the context of the case… I felt very confident that that low degree of methamphetamine was not what was triggering this profound cardiopulmonary arrest & ultimately PEA arrest.”
An emotional testimony was given by Floyd’s brother, Philonise O’Neil Floyd, who fondly recalled his brother’s love for basketball, especially his love of teaching it. Once again, the defense evoked the spark-of-life testimony to remind the jury of the humanity of Floyd.
The State called Seth Wayne Stoughton, an associate professor of law in the Department of Criminal Justice at the South Carolina School of Law. He does scholarly research on the regulation of policing. He believed that Chauvin’s actions and the actions of the other officers involved were unjustified, considering the fact that Floyd was not resisting and it was 4 against 1. Professor Stoughton said that Floyd was obviously in “increasing medical distress”, and that the officers involved should have administered some sort of aid the minute Floyd was complaining.
On Thursday, April 15, Derek Chauvin invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege, announcing to the court that he would not testify in his murder trial. Chauvin’s defense attorney, Eric Nelson, also announced that the defense would rest its case after only two days of witness testimonies called to the stand from Chauvin’s defense. For comparison, the prosecution’s witness testimonies and arguments spanned over ten days during the three-week trial.
Throughout Chauvin’s trial, whether he would testify or not garnered high anticipation. The only verbal remarks from Chauvin throughout the duration of the trial were his responses to Judge Peter Cahill’s questions on Thursday. Nelson’s announcement to Judge Cahill that he will rest his case arrives after a total of seven witnesses brought forth by the defense that featured testimonies from a forensic pathologist, a police officer called to the scene of Floyd’s death, and Floyd’s friend, Shawanda Hill.
Closing Arguments and Verdict
After Chauvin invoked the Fifth Amendment on Thursday, closing arguments from the prosecution and Chauvin’s defense were presented before the court the following Monday, April 19. Chauvin’s defense argues that Floyd died of a fentanyl overdose and an enlarged heart, despite video evidence of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes. During the course of the trial, Chauvin’s defense consistently argued that Chauvin merely acted within the training he had received. For Chauvin’s closing arguments, his defense attorney Eric Nelson emphasized Chauvin’s presumed innocence to the jury.
Prosecutors Blackwell and Schleicher highlighted the lethal amount of excessive force that was demonstrated within the viral video of Floyd’s arrest on May 25 that was exerted by Chauvin. During witness testimonies, the prosecution called multiple police officers to the stand to dispel notions that Chauvin merely acted within his training as an officer.
Ultimately ending their closing argument with an emotional appeal to the jury, Blackwell remarked, “and now having seen all the evidence and having heard on the evidence, you know the truth, and the truth of the matter is that the reason George Floyd is dead is because Mr. Chauvin’s heart was too small,” in response to the defense’s accusations that Floyd died because his heart was “too big” due to pre-existing complications. Medical examiners have testified that the defense’s claim is untrue, and have presented testimony that Floyd died of asphyxia as a result of the external pressure applied by Chauvin.
Following closing arguments from the prosecution and the defense, the 12-person jury began the first full day of deliberations on Tuesday, April 20. The jury, consisting of seven women and five men that have remained anonymous throughout the trial, deliberated for four hours on Monday. Among the three charges against Chauvin, jurors must unanimously agree for a verdict.
After 10 hours of deliberation, the jury found Derek Chauvin guilty of Murder in the 3rd Degree, Manslaughter in the Second Degree, and Unintentional Murder in the Second Degree. The state motioned to revoke Chauvin’s bail and remand him into custody, which Judge Cahill granted.
On April 20, 2021, Chauvin was handcuffed in the courtroom and escorted to jail.
Following the Trial
Sentencing for Chauvin’s guilty charges is planned to take place in eight weeks. According to the Associated Press, Minnesota sentencing guidelines define presumptive sentences as 12½ years in prison for each of the two murder charges and four years for manslaughter.
Though, the prosecution presented multiple aggravating pieces of evidence that could indicate a longer sentencing. Chauvin will face a maximum sentence of 75 years combining the maximum sentences all of the three charges or a minimum of 45.
Officers Thao, Kueng, and Lane will be tried together on Aug. 30. They face charges of “aiding and abetting unintentional second-degree murder and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter.”
Derek Chauvin’s trial did not end, entirely, in celebration from those who hoped he would be found guilty. “We don’t find pleasure in this,” said civil rights activist Al Sharpton in a press conference after the verdict was announced. “We don’t celebrate a man going to jail. We would’ve rather George be alive.”
On April 11, near the end of Chauvin’s trial, Daunte Wright was murdered by Kimberly Ann Potter, a former Minnesota police officer. His funeral will be held on April 22, just two days after the conclusion of Chauvin’s trial. As we fight for justice, more injustice occurs. Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison thinks calling Chauvin’s conviction ‘justice’ is a far stretch: “I would not call today’s verdict justice, however—because justice implies restoration. But it is accountability.”
President Joe Biden also spoke at the press conference following Floyd’s death, calling for more reform. “We can and we must do more to reduce the likelihood that tragedies like this will ever happen or occur again [ . . . ] so [Black people] don’t fear interactions with law enforcement . . . [so] they don’t have to wake up knowing that they can lose their very life in the course of just living their life.”
“As the Chauvin trial played out, we again heard about the egregious treatment that George Floyd received during the 9 minutes and 29 seconds that led to his death,” said Whittier College President Linda Oubré in an email to the campus community Tuesday evening. “What is more, as this trial went forward two more young men of color, 13-year-old Adam Toledo and 20-year-old Daunte Wright, were shot and killed by police officers in situations that seemed not to warrant that level of violence.” In hauntingly recent news, a police officer from Columbus shot and killed 15-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant just minutes before the conclusion of Chauvin’s trial.
The general consensus of those who spoke after the trial seems to be this: Chauvin’s conviction was not a sign of legitimate change, and the relief offered from it is temporary.
To provide a larger scope of the systemic killings by police and the rarity of their convictions, research produced by Bowling Green State University showcases that from 2005 to 2019, merely four on-duty police officers were convicted and charged with murder despite disproportionate levels of civilians killed by police.
Although national data on police misconduct is sparse, in recent years, the number of civilians killed by police is around 1,000 annually. In comparison to other countries, Canada, Australia, and Germany cited far less than 50 civilians killed by police in 2019, whilst the U.S. total number of civilians killed by police was 1,099.
In addition to the disproportionate rates of police killings within the U.S., police officers have historically been protected from court convictions due to broad legal protections of qualified immunity provided by their job title. With little precedent established for police convictions, a vicious cycle ensues where convicting police officers for misconduct such as manslaughter and murder have proved difficult to legally win.
The Office of Equity and Inclusion offers resources for members of the Whittier College community, including an Open Space on Wednesday, April 21 from six to seven p.m. Pacific Time. For more mental health resources, here is information and resources compiled by the Quaker Campus.
Feature image: Courtesy of NBC News
Editor-in-Chief Tori O’Campo contributed to this article.