Source: Jim Mone/AP
By Ryan Chou and Seth Gellman
On May 25, 2020, 46-year old George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Disgraced former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin held him in a dangerous chokehold over an alleged counterfeit $20 bill, pushing his knee on his neck for over nine minutes. Occurring in broad daylight with a number of first-person spectators, the use of force was documented and spread across the internet. Millions would join in protest across the world with demands such as “Justice for George Floyd”. Derek Chauvin, along with other former officers Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane, and Tou Thao, would be charged for his death.
After nearly ten months, Derek Chauvin’s trial began on March 8, 2021. Charged with second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter, the case received widespread attention. The defense prepared to argue that a fentanyl overdose, not asphyxia from the knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck, was the primary cause of the death.
Going into the trial, the prosecution would be spearheaded by Keith Ellison, the Attorney General for the State of Minnesota, with the co-counsel including Matthew Frank, Jerry Blackwell, Steven Schleicher, and Erin Eldridge. On the other side, Derek Chauvin was defended by Eric Nelson, a founding partner at one of the largest criminal defense firms in Minneapolis, Halberg Defense. The presiding judge over the trial was Peter Cahill, a justice for Hennepin County Courthouse’s Fourth District.
The anonymous jury was made up of six white, four black, and two multi-racial individuals. Selection was done carefully in order to ensure impartiality, including questioning into the member’s views on organizations such as Black Lives Matter.
The first day of trial started with an opening statement from Blackwell. Notably, Blackwell said, “Mr. Derek Chauvin betrayed this badge when he used excessive and unreasonable force upon the body of Mr. George Floyd. That he put his knees upon his neck and his back, grinding and crushing him until the very breath – no, ladies and gentlemen – until the very life was squeezed out of him.”
Nelson, on the other hand, argued about reason and common sense, saying, “Reason is an idea that wholly permeates our law, our legal system, and it forms the foundation.” Nelson then asked a series of rhetorical questions, asking, “What would a reasonable police officer do? What is a reasonable use of force? What would a reasonable person do in his or her most important affairs? What is a reasonable doubt?”
Three witnesses took to the stand on Monday for the prosecution. The witnesses were a 911 dispatcher and two bystanders. The 911 dispatcher, Jena Scurry, who saw the arrest from a CCTV feed across the street from the shop, testified that she recalled thinking that the feed was “frozen” due to how long the three officers remained on top of Floyd.
Dozens of witnesses after Scurry testified throughout the trial, including Floyd’s girlfriend, Courteney Ross, a 61 year-old bystander named Charles McMillan, a retired forensic pathologist named David Fowler, a Minneapolis Park Police officer named Peter Chang, a 10-year old girl, and a pulmonologist named Dr. Martin Tobin. Ross provided an emotional testimony, testifying that Floyd was a sweet man and had an on and off struggle with opioid addiction due to chronic pain. She did not comment on whether Floyd used opioids on the day of his death. David Fowler was the chief medical examiner for the state of Maryland until his retirement in 2019. He was asked about the findings of the medical examiner for Hennepin County, where the death of Floyd took place. Fowler testified that he would say “undetermined,” citing Floyd’s consumption of fentanyl and methamphetamine and his possible exposure to carbon monoxide poisoning from the police car. Dr. Fowler also stated that he believed Floyd died of a sudden cardiac arrest while in a struggle with the officers, as well as testifying that Floyd’s health problems contributed to an erratic beating of the heart. Chang responded to the scene of Floyd’s arrest and said that the crowd of bystanders were “very aggressive.” Chang also said that he was concerned for the safety of the police officers. The 10-year old third grader provided emotional testimony, describing at one point how paramedics had to “push” Derek Chauvin off George Floyd. Notably, Dr. Tobin provided in-depth testimony as an expert witness, giving his opinion that George Floyd’s cause of death could not have been due to fentanyl because his breathing simply was not depressed enough, as carbon monoxide due to his oxygen saturation at the hospital was high enough that there could not have been even an abnormal amount of carbon monoxide in his body.
Evidence in the case included silent security footage of Floyd’s purchase of a pack of cigarettes in a Cup Foods grocery store. He used a $20 bill. Cashier Christopher Martin testified that Floyd was friendly and appeared under the presence of drugs due to his struggle to answer a simple question. Martin thought the bill was counterfeit and told his manager that he thought so. Martin also testified that he thought Floyd didn’t know the bill was counterfeit. The manager told Martin to go outside and confront Floyd. Martin went outside to Floyd in his car with two passengers to do so. Floyd twice refuses to re-enter the store, prompting Martin’s manager to ask a coworker to call the police. Officers Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane arrive at the site 6 minutes after the first call, arriving at 8:08 PM. Lane’s body camera shows him knocking on Floyd’s car and Floyd apologizing after opening the door, saying “Please Mr officer, don’t shoot me man … I didn’t know man.” Floyd is then pulled out of the car and handcuffed by Lane. Kueng and Lane try to push Floyd into the police car. Floyd pleads with them, saying that he is claustrophobic. Officers Chauvin and Tou Thao arrive on the scene. Floyd is pushed into the back seat then pulled out the other side of the car. Floyd is then handcuffed to the ground, and Chauvin puts his knee on his neck and back for the next 9 minutes and 29 seconds. Floyd continues to plead, saying “I can’t breathe” several times before crying out “Mama, mama. Mama I love you.” By 8:24 PM, Floyd is non-responsive. Paramedics arrive four minutes later to find Floyd without a pulse and with dilated pupils. An ambulance takes Floyd to the hospital, arriving at 8:55 PM in cardiac arrest.
Closing arguments happened on April 19th. Steve Schleicher gave the closing argument for the prosecution, saying, “He knew better. He didn’t do better.” Nelson’s closing argument focused on the time before the video and that Chauvin made an informed judgement, saying, “In the precise moment the force was used demonstrates that this was an authorized use of force, as unattractive as it may be.”
Blackwell led the rebuttal for the prosecution, arguing, “When Mr. Floyd is saying ‘Please, please. I can’t breathe’ twenty-seven times in just a few minutes. You saw it when Mr. Chauvin did not let up and didn’t get up. Even when the ambulance comes, he doesn’t let up or get up. Even then.
The jury found Chauvin guilty on all counts: second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. Chauvin had no apparent reaction to the verdict. His bail was revoked and he was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs. In Minnesota, second-degree murder can have a maximum sentence of 40 years, while third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter carry sentences of 25 and 10 years, respectively. He will be sentenced June 16.