Here’s what to expect as Chauvin’s murder trial begins

‘Unambiguous’ events around Floyd’s death make for a challenging defence, but trial’s outcome is still up in the air.

Eric Nelson and former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, introduce themselves to jurors as Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill presides over jury selection on March 17, 2021 [File: Court TV/Pool via AP Photo]

Arguments in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is accused of murdering George Floyd, begin on Monday, with the world watching what has been described as one of the most important – and irregular – trials in modern US history.

Chauvin, who is white, is charged with unintentional second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the May 25 death of Floyd, who was Black.

Floyd’s death, which occurred while Chauvin had his knee on his neck, was filmed and widely viewed, sparking nationwide protests against police brutality and calls for systemic change.

Opening statements began at 930am local time (1430 GMT) on Monday.

Jury selection ended on March 23. Four of the 12 jurors are Black and two identify as multiracial, according to the court, meaning half the jury is not white – a much larger percentage than the demographics of Minneapolis itself, which is about 63.6 percent white and nearly 20 percent Black, according to the US Census. The two alternates are white.

George Floyd
A memorial to George Floyd is lit by morning light one month later in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on June 25, 2020 [File: Nicholas Pfosi/Reuters]

The demographics could ease concerns that a jury lacking diversity might weaken faith in the verdict, though some have criticised the judge excusing Black candidates who described negative experiences with police.

Michael Padden, a Minneapolis-based lawyer with 34 years experience trying cases, often involving the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD), told Al Jazeera that is unusual for a trial in Hennepin County.

“The most people of colour I ever had in a felony jury trial was three, it was two African Americans and one Asian person,” Padden said, pointing to authorities’ use of drivers licences, which skew white, as a way to call jurors.

‘No ambiguity’

There is usually some question about the circumstances of the alleged crime, as video and photographic evidence tend to be scarce, but the multiple videos of Floyd’s death leave little room for uncertainty.

“Most of the time in jury trials, you have ambiguity”, but “everybody knows what went down”, Padden said.

“So the question is, is that criminal? Obviously, Chauvin’s going to argue it wasn’t.”

Proving unintentional second-degree murder means the prosecution must show beyond a reasonable doubt that Chauvin caused Floyd’s death while committing or attempting to commit another felony, third-degree assault.

That requires proof Chauvin committed assault or attempted assault against Floyd, killing him in the process. The charge carries a sentence of 10.75 to 15 years, under Minnesota sentencing guidelines.

Padden explained Chauvin’s lawyer Eric Nelson is likely to argue Chauvin “was trained to handle the situation in this way” and call expert witnesses to support these claims and challenge the cause of death.

Nelson has said fentanyl found in Floyd’s bloodstream was the true cause of death. He asked Judge Peter Cahill to reconsider admitting evidence based on a previous arrest of Floyd in 2019, when he allegedly swallowed several opioid painkillers as police approached.

Padden said it was important to remember the “jury is not obligated to accept the testimony of any expert witness”, and Floyd’s “cause of death” is an “easier issue” for the prosecution.

Bringing up the fentanyl argument is a risky move, Padden continued, saying Nelson “has to be careful about soiling this man’s grave”.

A woman attaches signs on temporary fencing that surrounds the closed-off, partially burned Minneapolis 3rd Police Precinct during jury selection in Chauvin’s trial in Minneapolis, Minnesota on March 12, 2021 [Leah Millis/Reuters]

The prosecution is likely to stick to a narrative centred on the videos of Floyd’s death and call their own expert witnesses to challenge the defence narrative, Padden said.

Third-degree murder, which does not require prosecutors to prove intent, is the “appropriate charge”, Padden said, though he would not comment on whether he believes Chauvin is guilty.

Unintentional second-degree murder is “ambiguous, and I think the jury would be confused by that”, he concluded.

‘Cop exceptionalism’

While the world watches what happens inside the courtroom, Michelle Gross, a Minneapolis police accountability activist for more than 40 years, told Al Jazeera that the community is upset it will not be allowed to attend the trial.

Many in Minneapolis were already upset about “cop exceptionalism”, as three other police charged in relation to Floyd’s death, J Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao, were not immediately arrested.

But authorities have also shut down the Hennepin County Government Center, the location of the trial, surrounding it in two barbwire-topped fences with razor wire between.

Gross referred to this as another example of “cop exceptionalism … you shut down our whole building and you shut the community out of this court. This trials one of the most important trials we’ve ever had in the history of Minnesota.”

Derek Chauvin, J Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao, the four police officers charged with the killing of George Floyd [Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office via AP Photo]

Chauvin’s trial is expected to last at least a month.

Gross called the filmed proceedings, which will be livestreamed, an “important first, but we should also be able to have members of the community in this courtroom”.

Source: Al Jazeera