MINNEAPOLIS (AP) – Opening statements begin Monday in the trial of a former Minneapolis police officer charged in the death of George Floyd, a Black man whose death last May sparked a series of protests around the world against police brutality and racial injustice.
Derek Chauvin, a 45-year-old white man, was recorded on video pressing his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes on May 25, 2020, while the 46-year old was handcuffed on the ground, pleading he couldn’t breathe. Chauvin was later fired from the police force.
Three other officers who were at the scene that day — and were also subsequently terminated from the force — will stand trial together in August.
Chauvin’s trial, being held at the Hennepin County Government Center in downtown Minneapolis, technically began weeks ago with jury selection. But interest and media focus are expected to be intense on Monday, with the court hearing opening statements from the prosecution and defence, a process that could last more than one day.
In case the trial attracts protests, the state has allocated $36 million US for security around the courthouse and has activated the Minnesota National Guard.
The trial, presided over by Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill, will be livestreamed for broadcast on the Court TV website and some TV channels — a first for Minnesota. It could last anywhere from two to four weeks.
Here’s what else you need to know about the trial:
What are the charges against Chauvin?
Chauvin faces two murder charges: second-degree unintentional murder and third-degree murder. Minnesota state law differentiates between intentional and unintentional second-degree murder.
The second-degree murder charge is punishable by up to 40 years in prison. Third-degree murder carries a 25-year maximum sentence. Chauvin is also charged with the lesser offence of second-degree manslaughter, which carries a maximum of 10 years behind bars if convicted.
Wasn’t the third-degree murder charge dismissed?
Chauvin was initially charged with third-degree murder, but Cahill dismissed it months later because, he argued, the prosecution would have to prove that Chauvin’s actions were “eminently dangerous to other persons.” Since Floyd was the only person who could have been endangered, Cahill dismissed the charge.
However, the Minnesota Court of Appeals said Cahill should reconsider the prosecution’s motion to reinstate the charge following an appeals court ruling of the case of Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor. Noor had been found guilty of third-degree murder in the death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, a 40-year-old dual citizen of the U.S. and Australia.
Cahill later reinstated the charge.
Who is prosecuting the case?
While Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison is expected to be in court, Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank is leading the prosecution. Frank oversees the criminal division of the state’s Attorney General’s Office. The experienced attorney recently won a guilty plea in the case of Lois Riess, a Minnesota woman who got life in prison without parole for killing her husband in 2018.
Who is defending Chauvin?
Eric J. Nelson, Chauvin’s lead defence counsel, is a Minneapolis criminal defence lawyer who has worked on other murder cases. He helped win an acquittal for a Minnesota man who was charged with fatally shooting his unarmed neighbour in 2017, The Associated Press reported.
Nelson also represented Amy Senser, the wife of former Minnesota Vikings tight end Joe Senser, who was convicted in the 2011 hit-and-run death of a Minneapolis chef. Nelson argued she should be sentenced to probation, but a judge gave her 41 months in prison.
Who will be in the courtroom?
Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill will preside over the trial. Cahill has been a judge since 2007 and has a reputation as being no-nonsense, fair, decisive and direct, The Associated Press reported.
COVID-19 has forced limits on the number of people inside the courtroom. Along with Cahill, the jury and Chauvin, up to four members from each of the prosecution and defense teams will be allowed inside. A court reporter and two members from the media are also included.
What do we know about the jury?
The jury, including alternates, is considered unusually diverse by local standards and includes nine people who are white and six who are Black or multiracial. Nine are women and six are men.
Who are some potential witnesses?
Some of the witnesses expected to testify include Darnella Frazier, the teenager who filmed the video; the country medical examiner; the Minneapolis police chief; and some of Floyd’s friends and family.
What must the prosecution prove to get convictions?
The prosecution will likely make significant use of the videotape showing Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck, arguing this was an unreasonable use of force that caused his death.
To get a conviction on the second-degree murder charge, prosecutors must prove that Chauvin caused Floyd’s death while committing or attempting to commit a felony. In this case, they will argue that the knee to the neck is that felony.
However, in Minnesota, that death can be “intentional” or “unintentional,” meaning the prosecution doesn’t have to prove that Chauvin intended to kill Floyd.
For the third-degree murder charge, prosecutors would have to convince the jury that Floyd’s death was caused by an act that was obviously dangerous, though not necessarily a felony.
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.
What will be Chauvin’s defence?
Chauvin’s legal team will likely argue that their client used reasonable force to subdue Floyd.
Two autopsies were conducted on Floyd — one by the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office and another that was commissioned by Floyd’s family. The county found that the cause of Floyd’s death was “cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint and neck compression.”
The family’s autopsy ruled Floyd died of “asphyxiation from sustained pressure.”
But the defence will likely zero in other findings of the autopsy. The medical examiner found Floyd had underlying health conditions and that drugs, including fentanyl, were found in his system.
In court documents, Nelson has argued that Floyd most likely died of “fentanyl or a combination of fentanyl and methamphetamine in concert with his underlying health conditions.”