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Jury faces high-stakes decisions as Derek Chauvin trial begins Monday in death of George Floyd

Prosecuting a police officer historically hasn't been an easy task, several legal experts said, but the Minneapolis incident brought a worldwide movement and has a former officer facing the potential of a lengthy prison term.

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Memorials to George Floyd are seen at the intersection of East 38th Street and Chicago Avenue, now known as George Floyd Square, Wednesday, March 3, 2021, in Minneapolis. Opening statements in the trial for former officer Derek Chauvin will begin Monday, March 29. Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the 2020 death of George Floyd. (Joe Ahlquist / Forum News Service)
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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."

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George Floyd.jpg
George Floyd (Forum News Service / courtesy photo)

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.

RELATED: Watch the Derek Chauvin trial live starting with opening arguments Monday, March 29 Follow the Derek Chauvin trial live with streams available here each day of the trial.

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."

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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."

RELATED: What we know about the jurors in the Derek Chauvin trial Opening statements in the trial are expected to begin Monday, March 29.
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."

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FILE PHOTO: Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin poses for a booking photograph
Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin poses for an undated booking photograph taken after he was transferred from a county jail to a Minnesota Department of Corrections state facility. Minnesota Department of Corrections/Handout via REUTERS

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 in the killing of George Floyd, the world watches Minnesota "This is the most famous police brutality prosecution in the history of the United States": The case against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin begins Monday, March 8, with jury selection; opening arguments are slated for March 29.
  • The risks of police restraint: NEWSMD Special Report Experts say restraint asphyxia killed George Floyd. Why are some police told it doesn't exist?
  • Minnesota law enforcement groups say they're ready to address 'flashpoints' around Derek Chauvin trial Law enforcement groups in the Twin Cities metro area said they had backup and were prepared to scale up staffing if civil unrest broke out around the trial.
  • In Minneapolis, communities of color brace for fresh wave of trauma as Derek Chauvin goes on trial in George Floyd's death Trauma responses are likely to surface as the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is underway, mental health experts say. It could hit especially hard for Black and brown people living in Minneapolis, who are exploring a variety of methods of coping and healing.
  • Minneapolis teen opens up about her viral George Floyd video As jury selection moved along last week in the fired police officer's murder trial, Darnella Frazier turned to the same outlet she used in posting the cellphone video in late May and wrote: "If you think Derek Chauvin was 'just doing his job' YOU'RE A PART OF THE PROBLEM."
  • Minneapolis City Attorney: Timing of George Floyd lawsuit settlement reflected need to act fast Judge Peter Cahill said earlier this week that the timing of the settlement was "unfortunate" and he wished city officials would stop publicly discussing the criminal case for former officer Derek Chauvin. On Wednesday, March 17, Cahill dismissed two jurors who been previously selected, after they said they had heard about the settlement.
  • Derek Chauvin trial puts cameras front, center of Hennepin courtroom Not only is the trial historic, but so too is the fact that it can be watched by anyone with a decent internet connection — offering unprecedented access to Minnesota's courts that advocates hope could open the door for future televised sessions.
  • Derek Chauvin jury set, opening arguments begin Monday in the death of George Floyd Day 12: Fourteen jurors, including two alternates, were already seated when court began Tuesday. However Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill said he wants one more alternate to be chosen in case a juror drops out before opening statements start Monday, March 29. He said he will dismiss the extra juror Monday if they are not needed.

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

Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or tolsen@duluthnews.com.
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