'Reckless disregard for human life' or 'tragic accident'? Derek Chauvin goes on trial, charged with murder of George Floyd

Tami Abdollah, USA TODAY
·10 min read

A video of George Floyd taking his last breath under the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is at the center of a murder trial in a death witnessed by tens of millions of people.

The question at the heart of the case, which is scheduled to start Monday with jury selection, is whether what people saw on the video was murder or a terrible tragedy.

Prosecutors contend Floyd, 46, was killed by Chauvin’s knee, compressed against Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes while he was handcuffed and pinned to the pavement. The defense is likely to argue that Floyd's death was the result of his struggle with police, the drugs in his system and health issues such as heart disease.

Video filmed by a bystander went viral, followed by months of protests over racism and police brutality.

“The video of Chauvin murdering George Floyd was powerful enough to do what the other videos did not do, which is to get close to an estimated 15 to 20 million white people, out of 25 million who marched across the country,” said Connie Rice, a prominent civil rights attorney.

“The video will be everything in this trial,” she said.

Chauvin and Floyd crossed paths after a convenience store employee called 911 alleging Floyd had used a counterfeit $20 bill. As he lay on the ground under Chauvin, Floyd cried out, “I can’t breathe” more than 20 times. He called for his mother, who had recently died, nearly a dozen times.

Chauvin, 44, is charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter and may face a third-degree murder charge, too. An appeals court ruled Friday that the trial court judge should not have refused to reinstate a third-degree murder charge. It's unclear whether that will affect the trial schedule.

Three other officers involved in the incident, J. Alexander Keung, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao, are charged with aiding and abetting. They were all fired last year.

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Two autopsies concluded George Floyd's death was a homicide

Among the evidence are two autopsies, one conducted by the Hennepin County medical examiner and another by independent forensic pathologists at the request of Floyd's family.

Both concluded Floyd's death was a homicide.

The county medical examiner said Floyd’s death was the result of cardiopulmonary arrest complicated by “law enforcement subdual (being subdued), restraint and neck compression.” A toxicology report showed fentanyl and methamphetamine in Floyd's system.

The federal Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, which reviewed that autopsy, said the “subdual and restraint had elements of positional and mechanical asphyxiation.”

The family’s autopsy found Floyd died of asphyxiation because of neck and back compression.

Though the medical examiners agree Floyd's death was a homicide, the "mechanism" of death is still a big question, said Mary Moriarty, a former Hennepin County chief public defender.

“Did he get asphyxiated because of the knee, because of the position? Did the knee cut off blood to his brain?" she said.

Somil Trivedi, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, expects a “battle of the experts” around the autopsies, in which the defense will probably argue Floyd died from a drug overdose, not from Chauvin's knee on his neck.

Ted Sampsell-Jones, a professor at Mitchell Hamline College of Law in neighboring St. Paul, said the defense is likely to say Chauvin was trying to subdue Floyd and wasn’t aware he was in danger.

“If I were the defense attorney,” he said, “I’d be saying, ‘This was a really tragic accident and horrible, but this was not a result that Chauvin wanted.’”

Derek Chauvin to George Floyd: 'It takes a heck of a lot of oxygen to say things'

Moriarty said the defense will have trouble proving a drug overdose caused Floyd’s death.

“Under the law, you take your victim as you find them,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if George Floyd (might have) later died of an overdose. What matters is Chauvin’s knee on him, and the position of it, caused his death.”

The prosecution needs to show that Chauvin “knew better,” Moriarty said. The prosecution needs to prove that Chauvin knowingly committed a felony – an assault on Floyd – that unintentionally caused his death, experts said.

A court filing by prosecutors describes bystanders, including children, watching and pleading with Chauvin to stop, but he “rolled his knee back and forth, pressing it into Floyd’s neck and maintaining pressure on Floyd’s breathing” even after he went limp.

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin faces charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter.
Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin faces charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter.

The prosecution plans to introduce body camera videos from the four officers. One, according to a court filing, shows Chauvin dismissing Floyd’s pleas, telling him, “You’re doing a lot of talking, a lot of yelling. It takes a heck of a lot of oxygen to say things.”

Chauvin ignored calls from the crowd to check whether Floyd was breathing. Instead, he asked whether Lane, who was restraining Floyd’s legs, was “all right.”

A body camera captured Floyd’s last words: “I can’t breathe.”

'Cameras matter': How Derek Chauvin's defense might use video to its advantage

John Burris, a civil rights attorney, represented Rodney King, a Black man who was beaten by white Los Angeles police officers 30 years ago while a neighbor recorded it with his Sony camcorder. The four officers were acquitted of criminal charges; within hours, five days of rioting in Los Angeles began.

Burris said Chauvin’s mental state will be an important issue.

“Whether this is criminal, it’s really a function of Chauvin’s attitude toward Floyd and the manner in which he held him down and looked very disinterested in the person,” Burris said. “It really goes to the heart of what kind of crime it is (because) reckless disregard for human life is a second-degree murder charge.”

Burris said the defense will probably say Chauvin's knee-on-neck restraint, which was included in the Minneapolis Police Department's handbook, was necessary. Though the public is predisposed to believe police, he said, “the cameras matter. They’re the one equalizer.

"The defense has to work very hard to slow that camera down," he said, "like they did in Rodney King.”

That means finding moments that show Floyd doing something that required officers to react even while he was being held down. The defense can argue Floyd “is not cooperating, that he’s being forceful, that he’s a big, bad dude,” Burris said.

Chauvin's lawyers will have to address why Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd's neck for three minutes after he became unresponsive.

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“Once the resistance or aggression has subsided, you are supposed to stop that level of force," said Christy Lopez, former deputy chief in the special litigation section of the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department. "That’s not what we saw happening here."

Ken Cooper, a use-of-force expert and director of THT (Technical Handgun Training) of New York, which trains law enforcement and civilians, said jurors will have to examine the “necessity” to use force.

“Nine minutes is about 12 lifetimes," Cooper said. "The question would be why. Why, officer, did you feel you had to have your knee on this man’s neck that long? ... If it’s not necessary, it was reckless.”

One witness, a former MMA fighter, pleaded with Derek Chauvin to stop 'blood choke'

Lopez, who led the team that investigated the Ferguson Police Department after Michael Brown’s death, said she expects prosecutors to focus not just on how long Chauvin had his knee on Floyd's neck but on how dangerous that move is.

Bystanders screamed that Floyd was unresponsive. An off-duty firefighter offered to provide medical assistance, repeatedly urging the officers to check Floyd's pulse and begin chest compressions, according to a court filing by prosecutors and the video. There were plenty of indications the officers understood "how dangerous this use of force is,” Lopez said.

The prosecution plans to call that firefighter as a witness, along with other bystanders such as a former mixed martial arts fighter, paramedics and the person who recorded the video, according to court filings and experts. Some of Chauvin's fellow police offers may testify.

According to court filings, the firefighter approached Floyd to offer help, but she was warned back by Chauvin, who held chemical spray in his hand. "She believes that if she intervened, she could have saved Mr. Floyd," prosecutors wrote.

Chauvin's attorney challenged allowing the firefighter to testify, saying her testimony would be "speculative" in a court filing.

The former professional fighter is heard on video exclaiming that Chauvin had placed Floyd in a "blood choke" and pleading with him to stop. The blood choke that Chauvin used on Floyd has that name because it "cuts off circulation," the prosecution wrote in a filing.

Jurors will hear from a member of the Floyd family, though the family has not decided which one, Ben Crump, the family attorney said. Chauvin's defense attorney, Eric Nelson, declined to say whether he would put Chauvin on the stand.

Minneapolis police allowed neck restraint against people who were 'actively resisting'

Though the neck restraint is dangerous, it was allowed by the Minneapolis Police Department.

The department’s documents and PowerPoints will cause the defense problems, Moriarty said.

The department’s use-of-force manual says “sanctity of life and the protection of the public” are cornerstones. It requires officers to try to de-escalate a confrontation before using force and to consider whether a person is actually resisting an officer or cannot comply because of other factors, including medical conditions, mental impairment or the influence of drugs or alcohol.

'We must act now': House passes police reform bill named for George Floyd

“It’s extremely problematic, the amount of time that none of the officers did anything after he became unresponsive,” Moriarty said. “After you know he’s unresponsive and doesn’t have a pulse, what are you doing? Why are you still holding him down?”

According to the department’s policy, a “conscious neck restraint” could be used only on a person who is “actively resisting." The department requires officers to place a restrained person on his or her side as soon as possible to facilitate breathing.

If someone is unconscious, the manual says, officers must check his airway and breathing and begin CPR if necessary. None of that was done.

“All those officers were trained about this, and so they had knowledge,” Moriarty said.

Floyd's death spurred the Minnesota state Legislature to pass a law banning chokeholds and neck restraints nearly two months later. Wednesday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a police overhaul bill named after George Floyd, which would ban chokeholds and neck restraints at a federal level, among other major changes.

Rodney King's former attorney, Burris, said that what happened to Floyd is so outrageous that the prosecution has a good chance of a conviction.

“I can see second-degree, and I can see manslaughter," Burris said. But "whenever the police is involved, I’m never shocked that it’s ‘not guilty.’”

Follow USA TODAY National Correspondent Tami Abdollah, who is covering the Derek Chauvin trial, at https://twitter.com/latams

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Derek Chauvin trial: 'Video is everything' in George Floyd murder case