Apr 9, 2021 | OPINION | By Reed Schaefer | Illustration by Patil Khakhamian
Many of us remember the indifferent face of Derek Chauvin as his knee, and his entire body behind it, pressed against George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes, 29 seconds last May.
The internet, and society as a whole, exploded after watching Chauvin, a white police officer, murder Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, as Floyd begged for his life, face down and cuffed on the pavement. Floyd’s death sparked unprecedented nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice. The trial against Chauvin began last Monday, and we relive this tragedy and await a decision that will ease or ignite the pain left by the scars of American racial injustice.
Chauvin is pleading not guilty to all charges: second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. The three other officers involved were also charged but will face separate trials. Ben Crump, prosecuting attorney representing Floyd, told CNN that he believes Chauvin will be convicted, but he also noted, “My heart has been broken before, dealing with the American legal system.” We, too, sit in anticipation for the outcome of the trial, having viewed video evidence so clearly exposing the senseless murder.
The cause of death, not Chauvin’s intent, is at issue in this case. Defense attorneys argued that Chauvin was simply doing what he had been trained to do and that Floyd’s drug use and pre-existing health conditions (including heart disease and high blood pressure) were the real cause of death.
Defense attorney Eric Nelson also shockingly placed the blame on the “threatening” crowd outside of Cup Foods and also argued that “the only thing that killed George Floyd was an overdose of excessive force.” As ironic as this statement sounds, it appears to be the defense’s attempt to blame the victim. Reportedly, fentanyl and methamphetamine use were among “significant conditions” found in Floyd’s autopsy.
In addition, during the first week of testimony, Floyd’s girlfriend, Courteney Ross, said that she and Floyd suffered from opioid addictions. Crump told reporters, “It’s going to antagonize them [Floyd’s family] over and over when [defense attorneys] try to tell them that his cause of death was not what they saw in this video, but some trace amounts of drugs that were found in his system.” But he added that the family expected it and are prepared for it. Sadly, a judge ruled that only one family member is allowed to attend the trial from either side due to COVID-19 restrictions.
The prosecution argues that Derek Chauvin’s knee caused George Floyd’s death and that Chauvin’s actions went beyond reasonable policing practices. In addition to the video we have all seen, officers’ body-camera videos and previously unseen bystander footage were presented in the first week of the trial.
Special Prosecutor Jerry Blackwell told the jury last Monday that, while Hennepin County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Andrew Baker had previously and falsely ruled Floyd’s cause of death cardiac arrest, prosecutors would later prove that he died of asphyxia (lack of oxygen) while Chauvin knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes. We can expect this topic to be covered more comprehensively in the weeks to come.
Testimony during the first week of the trial was emotional and difficult to watch. Floyd’s girlfriend Ross also shared pained and heartwarming words about George Floyd’s role as a father and husband.
We also saw testimony from the 911 dispatcher, Jena Scurry, who sent officers to the scene that day. During her testimony, Scurry called a police sergeant to voice her concerns about the arrest the day Floyd died, saying “I don’t know if they had to use force or not.” She added, “My instincts were telling me that something’s wrong. Something was not right. I don’t know what, but something wasn’t right.”
Prosecutors have also provided evidence that Chauvin’s actions were neither part of his training nor acceptable policing techniques. Minneapolis Police Department’s top homicide detective, Lt. Richard Zimmerman, testified that Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck after handcuffing him was “totally unnecessary” and that there was no danger present to provoke such force. Further, he said that officers are not trained to stand on the neck of a person they have handcuffed — once in this position, the officer must get out of this position as quickly as possible.
Perhaps the most significant testimony came this Monday. Minneapolis’s current Police Chief is Medaria Arradondo, who, on Monday, thoroughly rejected Chauvin’s decision to kneel on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes: “That in no way, shape or form is anything that is by policy. It is not part of our training, and it is certainly not part of our ethics or our values.”
Arradondo, the city’s first Black chief, fired Chauvin and three other officers the day after Floyd’s death, and in June called it “murder.” He previously has said, “Mr. George Floyd’s tragic death was not due to a lack of training — the training was there,” and that “Chauvin knew what he was doing.” It is important to note that the city of Minneapolis settled a wrongful death suit with George Floyd’s family for $27 million as the trial commenced.
Prosecutors don’t have to prove that Chauvin’s actions alone caused Floyd’s death, according to Minnesota guidelines for jury instructions. According to the state and the defense’s proposed jury instructions, “‘To cause’ means to be a substantial causal factor in causing the death. … The fact that other causes contribute to the death does not relieve the defendant of criminal liability.”
Despite the load of evidence to convict Chauvin, uncertainty still looms. When asked about the possibility of a hung-jury or not-guilty verdict, Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar said, “the community is on edge about that,” continuing, “we have seen justice not delivered in our community for many years. I think that there is a lot of confidence in [state] attorney general Keith Ellison and the prosecutors in this case, but we are all eagerly awaiting to see how this trial shakes out.”
Roughly 33% of officers charged with murder or manslaughter for an on-duty killing were convicted of murder from 2005-2019 according to research by BGSU. This does not include the significant portion of cases that never make it to a formal trial. Additionally, the Rodney King case eerily looms just 29 years ago, and the same aftermath threatens if history repeats itself in the verdict of this case. Importantly, though, we are already experiencing a more transparent trial than the Laquan McDonald case from two years ago in Chicago. Justice in this case would be a free and fair trial that leads to convictions on all three charges and just sentencing for all convictions.
To ensure a free and fair trial, we can keep updated on the case and keep the pressure on. Follow @justiceforgeorge on Instagram for trial updates. You can help The George Floyd Memorial Foundation send about 10,000 postcards to decision-makers in Minnesota asking for a free and fair trial, or you can donate to the foundation directly through HoldChauvinAccountable.com.
Lastly, it is most important to remember George Floyd is not on trial. He was the victim murdered last year by Derek Chauvin and now we have a chance to get justice for George. This victory would signify a step toward greater police accountability (and hopefully transparency) in our communities as a whole.