Murder Trial Begins for Officer Charged in George Floyd’s Death

Here is what you need to know about the trial

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Jury selection has begun in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the fired Minneapolis police officer who stands accused of killing George Floyd by pressing his knee into the back of Floyd’s neck.  The prosecution and defense teams are still wrangling over whether 3rd-degree murder should be included as one of three charges against Chauvin.  A higher court ruling may decide the issue.

Here is what you need to know about the trial:

THE CHARGES:  While I’m normally wary about prosecutors who overcharge their case, not here.  Each of the three charges (2nd-degree murder, 3rd-degree murder, and manslaughter) carry separate and distinct levels of proof on a sliding scale from top to bottom.  This offers jurors a choice… depending on how they view the evidence presented.  It allows them to reach a compromise verdict if they’re inclined to convict.  It also avoids an “all or nothing” verdict if there was only a single count.  It lessens the chance of an acquittal.

2nd Degree — committing a felony assault on the victim resulting in his death (felony murder)
3rd Degree — committing a dangerous or reckless act evincing depraved indifference to human life resulting in death
Manslaughter — a negligent act that created an unreasonable risk resulting in death

THE DEFENSE:   The big battle in this trial will be the cause of death.  Chauvin’s lawyers will argue that George Floyd died of a combination of fentanyl, methamphetamine, and underlying health conditions (heart disease and chronic drug use), not a knee restraint.  They’ll present toxicology reports to try to show that the level of drugs was so high that Floyd could have died based on that alone.  They will likely have an expert witness who will offer this opinion.

On the other side, the prosecution will argue that the autopsy report identifies neck compression as the primary cause of death.  The medical examiner, who ruled the death a homicide, will testify to the bruising on the neck and the other physical evidence of the officer’s actions that caused Floyd to die.  In other words, “but for” Chauvin’s act of kneeling on the back of Floyd’s neck, he would have survived the encounter with police.

Prosecutors do not need to prove that Chauvin was the sole cause of Floyd’s death; only that he was a “substantial factor” that contributed to the death.  This is a major legal advantage for the prosecution.

THE VIDEO:   The video of Chauvin holding his knee to the neck of George Floyd for more than 9 minutes is the prosecution’s best evidence.  It effectively transports jurors back in time to the scene of the alleged crime where they can watch events unfold as they happened, minute by minute and second by second.  Jurors literally become eyewitnesses.  The video alone may be enough to convict.  It is powerful evidence that could support all of the charges against Chauvin.  Jurors will hear Floyd say repeatedly that, “I can’t breathe” as he pleads for his life.  Bystanders are heard begging Chauvin to lift his knee from Floyd’s neck and telling the officer that he is killing the man on the ground.

Prosecutors will also introduce two other previous incidents to show that Chauvin has a history of this kind of conduct and knew exactly how to keep a suspect safe by allowing him to breathe.

BATTLE OF EXPERTS:  In addition to medical experts, both sides will call “use of force” experts to render an opinion on whether Chauvin utilized proper use of force standards or exceeded them.  The Chief of Police, who condemned Chauvin’s actions and called it murder, will be an important prosecution witness.  He is expected to testify that Chauvin significantly exceeded proper use of force standards.  A defense expert will likely tell the jury just the opposite.

PICKING THE JURY  This will be done meticulously as each prospective juror will be questioned at length individually.  They have already filled out a questionnaire probing how much they know about the case, whether they’ve formed an opinion, how many times they’ve watched the video, whether they’ve participated in protests, their own contacts with police, their views of the justice system, and what media accounts they’ve listened to.

Finding a fair and impartial jury will be difficult.  The pivotal question is not whether a juror has formed a belief about what happened, but whether that person can set aside such opinion and judge the matter based solely on the evidence presented inside the courtroom.