Opening statements are set to begin Monday in former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin’s trial, 10 months after George Floyd’s death under his knee launched a summer of protest and unrest.
In a first for Minnesota, the trial will be broadcast live in its entirety, giving the public a rare peek into the most important case of the Black Lives Matter era.
Chauvin, 45, has pleaded not guilty to second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter charges.
Citing disturbing video of Floyd’s final moments, prosecutors say Chauvin unintentionally killed Floyd while using excessive force during an arrest on May 25, 2020. Defense attorneys plan to make the case that Floyd died of unrelated medical issues and drug use, and they have argued Chauvin was following proper police protocol.
Floyd’s death led to a societal reckoning with America’s past and present of anti-Black racism and aggressive policing. During jury selection, prospective jurors were asked about their views on Black Lives Matter, defunding the police and former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the National Anthem.
But the trial itself will focus on questions specific to this case, including Floyd’s autopsy, Chauvin’s mindset and ill-defined legal terms like “depraved mind” and “culpable negligence.”
“Derek Chauvin is the defendant,” CNN senior legal analyst Laura Coates explained. “Not the American justice system. Not all police officers.”
The trial will take place at a heavily fortified Hennepin County courthouse surrounded by fencing and law enforcement. Due to Covid-19 precautions, plexiglass barriers have been set up inside the courtroom and witnesses and attorneys are required to wear masks when not speaking.
Opening statements and witness testimony are expected to last about four weeks, followed by deliberations.
Six men and nine women have been chosen to serve on the jury, and ultimately 12 of them will decide Chauvin’s fate.
The three charges against Chauvin are to be considered separate, so he could be convicted of all, some or none of them.
If convicted, Chauvin could face up to 40 years in prison for second-degree murder, up to 25 years for third-degree murder and up to 10 years for second-degree manslaughter. Minnesota’s sentencing guidelines recommend about 12.5 years in prison for each murder charge and about four years for the manslaughter charge.
How two lives collided
Floyd, 46, was born in North Carolina and raised in Houston and moved to Minnesota as an adult for a fresh start, working as security at a restaurant.
Chauvin had been an officer with the Minneapolis Police Department since 2001 until he was fired in the wake of Floyd’s death.
Their lives collided on May 25, 2020, when police were called about a man who had used a $20 counterfeit bill at a Minneapolis store. Two officers were directed to a parked car with Floyd in the driver’s seat, and they handcuffed him and moved to put him into the back of a police car, according to the amended complaint.
Chauvin and another officer then arrived to the scene and struggled to get Floyd into the vehicle, the complaint states. Chauvin allegedly pulled Floyd to the ground in a prone position and placed his knee on Floyd’s neck and head. His knee remained there even as Floyd pleaded, “I can’t breathe,” said “I’m about to die” and ultimately stopped breathing, the complaint says. He was pronounced dead at a hospital shortly after.
The final moments of Floyd’s life, captured on video by appalled and angry bystanders, illustrated in clear visuals what Black Americans have long said about the ways that the criminal justice system dehumanizes Black people.
Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao, all former Minneapolis Police officers, were also on scene with Chauvin and are charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter.
They have pleaded not guilty, and their joint trial will be held this summer. They are not expected to testify in Chauvin’s trial.
What the trial will focus on
The trial will not debate Floyd’s symbolism or the merits of Black Lives Matter. Instead, it will mainly focus on two things: the cause of death and Chauvin’s intent.
The Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s autopsy listed Floyd’s cause of death as heart failure due to “law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression,” and ruled it a homicide. The medical examiner, Dr. Andrew Baker, also noted Floyd’s arteriosclerotic and hypertensive heart disease, fentanyl intoxication and recent methamphetamine use as “other significant conditions.”
Chauvin’s defense attorneys have argued those other conditions were the real cause of death.
In a filing last August that previewed this defense, attorney Eric Nelson argued that Chauvin was acting within police policy and had no intent to harm Floyd. He argued that Floyd’s cause of death was not Chauvin’s knee but was the result of a drug overdose combined with preexisting heart problems, a prior Covid-19 infection and other health issues.
To get a guilty verdict, prosecutors have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt Chauvin caused Floyd’s death. So a series of forensic pathologists are expected to take the stand to debate this issue, including a likely contentious cross-examination of Dr. Baker.
The three charges differ primarily in how they interpret Chauvin’s intent and mindset during the arrest.
The second-degree murder charge says Chauvin intentionally assaulted Floyd with his knee, which unintentionally caused to Floyd’s death. The third-degree murder charge — which was added to the case in recent weeks — says Chauvin acted with a “depraved mind, without regard for human life.” And the second-degree manslaughter charge says Chauvin’s “culpable negligence” caused Floyd’s death.
Combined, the charges give jurors three different ways of deciding how liable Chauvin is for Floyd’s death — if at all — and how well he understood the risk to Floyd.
The defense has not indicated whether Chauvin will testify in his own defense. But given the importance of his mindset to the charges, he may do so to try to explain his behavior and gain the jurors’ sympathy.