The Derek Chauvin Trial: Charges, Jury, Defense Strategy and More


Derek Chauvin, 44, had been a police officer with the Minneapolis Police Department for more than 19 years before George Floyd’s death. During that time, he was the subject of at least 22 complaints and internal investigations. One of the episodes led to two letters of reprimand — his only formal discipline.

Mr. Chauvin worked in one of Minneapolis’s busiest precincts on its most difficult shift, from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m., long after many officers his age had moved to different positions. He earned several awards, including two medals of valor after separate confrontations in which he shot at suspects, one of whom died.

Mr. Chauvin, who is white, was filmed on May 25 of last year holding his knee to the neck of George Floyd, who is Black, for more than nine minutes as Mr. Floyd pleaded with him and repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe.”

Credit…Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, via Associated Press

Mr. Chauvin was fired the next day, along with three other officers who had arrived at Cup Foods, a convenience store, after a teenage clerk called 911 to report that Mr. Floyd had used a counterfeit $20 bill. In October, Mr. Chauvin was freed on bail while awaiting trial, having posted $100,000 through a bail bond agency. He was initially required to remain in Minnesota, but later was allowed to live in any of the four bordering states (Iowa, Wisconsin, North Dakota and South Dakota) because of concerns for his safety.

In the weeks after Mr. Chauvin was fired, protesters gathered at his house in the St. Paul suburbs, his wife of 10 years filed for divorce and a picture of his time on the police force emerged. Interviews with his acquaintances depicted him as an awkward and rigid workaholic who had a tendency to overreact.

Examples of Mr. Chauvin’s police work will most likely be presented at his trial. Prosecutors are expected to tell jurors about his arrest of a Black woman who has said that Mr. Chauvin kept his knee on her body while she was handcuffed and facedown on the ground and pleading, “Don’t kill me.” In another interaction considered relevant, Mr. Chauvin saved a suicidal man’s life by placing him on his side and riding with him to a hospital.

The Police Department commended Mr. Chauvin for the latter action, but prosecutors have argued that it shows he knew it was important to avoid creating breathing problems for people who were restrained.

Credit…Joshua Rashaad McFadden for The New York Times

Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, is charged with second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the death of George Floyd. If convicted of the most severe charge, he could face a maximum of 40 years in prison.

It’s not yet clear whether he will also face third-degree murder, which carries a lesser maximum penalty. An appellate court ruled on Friday that the judge overseeing Mr. Chauvin’s trial must reconsider whether to add the charge.

Mr. Chauvin’s lawyer, Eric J. Nelson, said in court on Monday that he planned to appeal that ruling, but he and the judge agreed that jury selection could continue while he appealed. Prosecutors, on the other hand, asked the judge to delay the start of the trial until after it was clear whether the jury would be able to consider the third-degree murder charge. Matthew Frank, the assistant attorney general prosecuting the case, filed an appeal to halt the trial until that decision was made, and the judge sent all of the potential jurors home on Monday as he and the lawyers figured out how to proceed.

Mr. Chauvin is charged under the doctrine known as felony murder, which allows a suspect to be charged with murder when committing an underlying felony. The charge is sometimes referred to as “unintentional murder” because the prosecutor does not need to prove malice or an intent to kill.

To convict Mr. Chauvin of second-degree murder, the prosecution needs to prove that he “was committing or attempting to commit” another felony, in this case third-degree assault, at the time of Mr. Floyd’s death.

Prosecutors will argue that when Mr. Chauvin kept his knee pressed on Mr. Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, causing Mr. Floyd to repeatedly say he could not breathe, he was committing third-degree assault. That felony requires the “intentional infliction” of bodily harm, or in this case an act done with the intent to cause Mr. Floyd to fear bodily harm or death.

Richard Frase, a professor of criminal law at the University of Minnesota who has published a primer on the legal issues in the case, wrote: “Third-degree assault is defined as any assault causing substantial bodily harm. At some point while being held down Mr. Floyd lost consciousness; prior cases have held that constitutes substantial bodily harm and poses sufficient danger to permit felony murder liability.”

As Mr. Chauvin prepares to face trial in state court, the federal government has recently stepped up its investigation. There is a new federal grand jury in Minneapolis that has been hearing from witnesses, an investigation that could lead to federal criminal charges that Mr. Chauvin violated Mr. Floyd’s constitutional rights.

Derek Chauvin, right, and his lawyer, Eric Nelson, in a screen grab from footage that was livestreamed out of a Minneapolis courtroom on Monday.
Credit…Court TV, via Associated Press

Glimpses of how Derek Chauvin’s lawyer, Eric J. Nelson, plans to defend his client, a former Minneapolis police officer who is accused of killing George Floyd, have emerged in numerous court filings over the last several months.

In the early days of the case, Mr. Chauvin sought to blame the two inexperienced officers, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng, who first arrived to the scene. Mr. Nelson argued that Mr. Floyd was already in the grips of a drug overdose by the time Mr. Lane and Mr. Kueng arrived at Cup Foods, the convenience store where Mr. Floyd allegedly passed a counterfeit $20 bill.

“If Kueng and Lane had chosen to de-escalate instead of struggle, Mr. Floyd might have survived,” Mr. Nelson wrote. “If Kueng and Lane had recognized the apparent signs of an opioid overdose and rendered aid, such as administering naloxone, Mr. Floyd might have survived.”

Mr. Lane and Mr. Kueng, along with a third officer, Tou Thao, a veteran who was Mr. Chauvin’s partner, were also fired and have been charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and manslaughter. They face a combined trial in August, but if Mr. Chauvin is acquitted, it is likely the other three officers would be as well.

At trial, Mr. Nelson’s defense is likely to be based on the arguments that Mr. Floyd died from drug use and an underlying health condition, not Mr. Chauvin’s knee restraint. Mr. Nelson’s cross-examination of the Hennepin County medical examiner, Dr. Andrew Baker, is likely to be a key moment when Mr. Nelson will try to raise reasonable doubt in the minds of jurors.

Dr. Baker has ruled Mr. Floyd’s death a homicide, with contributing factors being the restraint by Mr. Chauvin, drugs in Mr. Floyd’s system and his underlying health conditions. Dr. Baker said the amount of fentanyl that showed up on Mr. Floyd’s toxicology report would have allowed him to rule that Mr. Floyd died of an overdose if he were found alone at home. He has also said he cannot say whether Mr. Floyd would have died of other causes if it were not for Mr. Chauvin’s knee on his neck.

For Mr. Nelson, who will call his own medical expert to testify, this will be the area he will probe to try to raise reasonable doubt.

The state, however, needs to prove only that Mr. Chauvin’s actions “contributed to the death,” Judge Peter A. Cahill has written, not that they were the “sole cause of death.”

Another component of Mr. Chauvin’s defense will be that the force used to subdue Mr. Floyd was lawful and within the Police Department’s policy — an argument that will be challenged by Chief Medaria Arradondo, one of the prosecution’s most important witnesses.

Mr. Chauvin’s trial will take place in a specially built courtroom designed for social distancing at the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis.
Credit…Nina Robinson for The New York Times

The trial of Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd will be unusual for many reasons: It will be livestreamed from Minneapolis, attendance will be severely limited because of the coronavirus, and the public’s interest in the case may make this one of the highest-profile trials in recent memory.

Prosecutors and Mr. Chauvin’s lawyer will start narrowing down a pool of people to find 12 jurors, a process that is expected to begin Tuesday at the earliest and last about three weeks. Jury selection is the only part of the trial that will not be streamed live, though audio will be available.

Once the jury is chosen, the trial can be watched on nytimes.com, via a livestream provided by Court TV. Witness testimony and lawyers’ presentation of evidence should last several weeks before the jury begins to deliberate over the verdict.

Among the people allowed in the courtroom, on the 18th floor of the Hennepin County Government Center, are the judge, jurors, witnesses, court staff, lawyers and Mr. Chauvin, and only a handful of spectators. The judge, Peter A. Cahill, wrote in an order on March 1 that only one member of Mr. Floyd’s family and one member of Mr. Chauvin’s family would be allowed in the room at any time. There will be two seats reserved for reporters, and various journalists, including from The New York Times, will rotate throughout the trial.

The lawyers, spectators, jurors and witnesses will be required to wear masks when they are not speaking. Spectators are prohibited from having any visible images, logos, letters or numbers on their masks or clothing, according to Judge Cahill’s order.

Among the many witnesses who are expected to testify, the most prominent will most likely be Darnella Frazier, the teenager who took the video of Mr. Chauvin kneeling on Mr. Floyd’s neck; Chief Medaria Arradondo of the Minneapolis Police Department, who fired Mr. Chauvin, condemning his actions and calling Mr. Floyd’s death a “murder”; and Dr. Andrew Baker, the Hennepin County medical examiner who attributed Mr. Floyd’s death to “cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression.”

A question from the questionnaire sent to prospective jurors last year.

Late last year, prospective jurors in Minneapolis and surrounding communities received an extensive questionnaire about their knowledge of the case of Derek Chauvin, the former police officer who is accused of murdering George Floyd. It was a first step to gauge public sentiment about the case and weed out prospective jurors who have strong enough opinions to disqualify them from hearing the case.

Among the questions were whether they had seen the famous bystander video of Mr. Floyd struggling on the ground as officers tried to arrest him; whether they participated in any protests that erupted after Mr. Floyd’s death; and what newspapers they read and what podcasts they listen to.

The task of assembling a suitably impartial jury is expected to be one of the most challenging aspects of a case that has generated enormous publicity in Minneapolis and around the world.

Jury selection is expected to last at least three weeks — much longer than in a typical criminal case. Prospective jurors will, one at a time, take a seat in the courtroom and answer questions from the judge, prosecutors and Mr. Chauvin’s lawyer, Eric J. Nelson, that are designed to reveal their opinions and biases related to the police, the Black Lives Matter movement and the circumstances of Mr. Floyd’s death.

Simply knowing a great deal about the killing of Mr. Floyd is not enough to disqualify a juror, but the lawyers and the judge will be looking for signs that jurors can set aside what they know and consider only the evidence they hear in court to determine whether Mr. Chauvin broke the law.

Each side will have a certain number of pre-emptory challenges — the ability to strike a potential juror without cause, although the reason must not be based solely on race.

Diversity will be an important issue. Juries in Hennepin County tend to be whiter then the general population, and the prosecution is likely to do whatever it can to seat as many Black jurors as possible.

There is a very real possibility that it will prove too difficult to find 12 suitably impartial jurors — plus four alternates — in Minneapolis to try the case there. If that happens, the trial could be moved to another jurisdiction, although the judge has indicated he is determined to keep the case in the Twin Cities.

Mr. Nelson had argued that the trial should be moved because of pretrial publicity. The judge ruled out that option for now but warned he could change his mind, writing, “The Court will reconsider as the case develops if circumstances warrant.”



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