A Minneapolis police officer was swiftly fired and charged with murder after bystander video showed him pressing his knee into George Floyd’s neck, ignoring the Black man’s cries that he couldn’t breathe. But even with that powerful footage, legal experts say the case isn’t a slam dunk.
Jury selection begins Monday in Derek Chauvin’s trial, which is expected to come down to two key questions: Did Chauvin’s actions cause Floyd’s death, and were his actions reasonable?
“It’s hard not to watch the video and conclude that the prosecutors will not have any trouble with this case,” said Susan Gaertner, the former head prosecutor in neighboring Ramsey County. “But it’s not that simple.”
Floyd died May 25 after Chauvin, who is white, pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck for about nine minutes, holding his position even after Floyd went limp as he was handcuffed and lying on his stomach. Floyd’s death sparked sometimes violent protests in Minneapolis and beyond, and led to a nationwide reckoning on race.
Chauvin is charged with second-degree unintentional murder and second-degree manslaughter, and a panel of appeals court judges ruled Friday that the judge must consider reinstating a third-degree murder charge that he dismissed last fall. Three other officers, all of whom also were fired, face trial in August on charges of aiding and abetting the second-degree murder and manslaughter counts.
The second-degree murder charge requires prosecutors to prove Chauvin caused Floyd’s death while committing or trying to commit a felony — in this case, third-degree assault. The manslaughter charge has a lower bar, requiring proof that Chauvin caused Floyd’s death through negligence that created an unreasonable risk, and consciously took the chance of causing severe injury or death.
Exactly how Floyd died is shaping up as a major flashpoint of the trial.
Defense attorneys say it also may not be easy to establish that Chauvin was committing the felony of assault — as required for the second-degree murder charge in this case. That’s because Chauvin is authorized to use force as a police officer, and his attorneys will argue that his use of force against Floyd was reasonable.
Gaertner said the defense will face a challenge of trying to move the jury’s focus off of the video and the strong emotion it generates. They’ll instead try to focus on the medical evidence and Floyd’s underlying conditions while trying to portray the circumstances of the arrest as “justifiable consistent with police norms,” she said.
Brandt and Tyler said Chauvin will likely have to take the stand to explain why he felt he had to hold Floyd down for so long. Brandt said he’ll likely say he followed his training, and that it was necessary because his experience with other suspects under the influence of drugs shows that things can suddenly become erratic and dangerous.
Brandt said the third-degree murder charge could be easier for prosecutors to prove if it’s reinstated because they wouldn’t have to show Chauvin intended to commit assault. Instead, they must prove his actions caused Floyd’s death, and that they were reckless and without regard for human life.
The second-degree manslaughter count alleges Chauvin took a risk that a reasonable person would have known could cause death. To defend against that, Brandt said, Chauvin could argue that he had used the same hold in the past and didn’t think it would cause a problem.