The prosecution is likely to be built around images of the officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, while the defense will seek to cast doubt with forensic and medical testimony
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The prosecution and defense are set to give opening statements Monday in the trial of a former Minneapolis police officer accused of murder in George Floyd’s death.
Prosecutors’ central piece of evidence against the officer, Derek Chauvin, is likely
to be a video that helped ignite protests and rioting in cities across the country. Mr. Chauvin’s strongest defense likely lies in the forensic and medical evidence and expert testimony that could cast Mr. Floyd’s death as an event of his own making.
Outside lawyers say Mr. Chauvin’s trial is shaping up as a legal battle between two different types of evidence that have both proved effective in other trials: visceral visuals versus technical details. Mr. Chauvin’s fate hinges on what the jury finds most compelling during a trial expected to last a month.
What to Know About Derek Chauvin’s Trial, First Over Death of George Floyd
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to Know About Derek Chauvin’s Trial, First Over Death of George Floyd
Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is being tried for second-degree murder over the death of George Floyd. WSJ’s Shelby Holliday highlights how prosecutors and the defense may present their case. Photo: Nicholas Pfosi/Reuters
Mr. Chauvin, 44 years old, has pleaded not guilty to both second-degree murder, the crime of unintentionally causing Mr. Floyd’s death while assaulting him, and to third-degree murder, which Minnesota law defines as causing the death of another through an
eminently dangerous act and evincing a depraved mind. For someone with no prior felony offenses like Mr. Chauvin, Minnesota sentencing guidelines recommend a sentence of 128 to 180 months for both charges, though the maximum punishment is higher.
Mr. Chauvin also faces a lesser charge of second-degree manslaughter. Three other officers are charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder in connection with Mr. Floyd’s death and are expected to face trial in the late summer. Their lawyers all say none of them committed any crime.
The bystander and body-camera footage show Mr. Floyd calling for his mother, gasping for air, and going limp as Mr. Chauvin rests a knee against his neck. Mr. Floyd appeared to have stopped breathing for the last 3½ minutes of the more than eight minutes Mr. Chauvin had him pinned prone to the ground at the intersection of a commercial strip in south Minneapolis.
Defense attorney Eric Nelson, left, and Derek Chauvin introduced themselves to potential jurors last week.
“For the prosecution the key part of the case is eight minutes and 46 seconds of videotape, and they will build everything else around it,” said Jack Rice, a veteran criminal defense attorney in St. Paul and former prosecutor who has followed the trial closely. “The reason it is so critical is that the video is objective, that will be their argument. You can’t deny the time, place, the behavior.”
Legal experts expect Mr. Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, to portray his client as a decorated and seasoned professional doing a dangerous job and deploying a restraint technique he was trained to use. His opening statement will likely try to blame Mr. Floyd’s death on his life-t
hreatening heart disease and the drugs in his system as he was resisting arrest.
Mr. Chauvin doesn’t need to prove he didn’t kill Mr. Floyd to avoid a murder conviction. He could try to raise reasonable doubt—the standard of guilt—from the county’s official autopsy report and the medical examiner’s own words.
Hennepin County’s chief medical examiner, Andrew Baker, labeled Mr. Floyd’s death a homicide—meaning that the actions of someone else contributed to his dying. But he also said Mr. Floyd had a potentially fatal level of fentanyl in his system, along with methamphetamine. Mr. Baker said there was no anatomic evidence of injury to Mr. Floyd’s neck or autopsy evidence that blood or air supply was cut off, according to a summary of an interview with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and federal prosecutors that was filed as evidence.
Andrew Baker, Hennepin County chief medical examiner, shown in 2012, labeled Mr. Floyd’s death a homicide.
For the defense, “it’s not the 8 minutes 46 seconds that matters,” said Mr. Rice. “It’s about what happened before the camera was turned on.”
The FBI summary also said Mr. Floyd’s heart and lungs gave out “due to the combined effects of his health problems as well as the exertion and restraint involved in Floyd’s interaction with police prior to being on the ground.”
The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office disputes that is what Dr. Baker conveyed to federal authorities. The prosecution could point to a separate autopsy review by the federal Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, requested by the U.S. Department of Justice, that concluded that Floyd’s death was caused in part by a restraint that had “elements of positional and mechanical asphyxiation.”
What’s your take on Derek Chauvin’s defense? Will it be enough to absolve him of murder? Join the conversation below.
The defense will likely respond with clips of Mr. Floyd resisting arrest in the early stages of his interaction with officers who at one point allowed him to sit on the curb to gather his composure, said Joseph Daly, a retired professor at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul. They will also likely home in on any footage showing that Mr. Chauvin’s knee wasn’t on Mr. Floyd’s neck the entire time and signs that he continued to resist even while on the ground, he said.
“It’s not an open-and-shut case,” said Mr. Daly, who taught Mr. Nelson trial skills in law school and years ago worked on a case with Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who is overseeing the prosecution team.
Mr. Nelson, 46, has deep experience representing defendants accused of sex, drug, and drunken-driving offenses. Until now, his most publicized case was the hit-and-run trial of the wife of former Minnesota Vikings football player Joe Senser. She was convicted.
Mr. Nelson is up against a prosecution team that includes a pro-bono group of litigators like former U.S. acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal, former federal prosecutor Steven Schleicher and Minnesota trial attorney Jerry Blackwell.
Major world and business news, including political events, takeovers.
The defense has filed exhibits of Minneapolis Police Department training materials saying that officers at the time were allowed to use neck compressions, including placing a knee to the neck of a prone subject, under certain circumstances, noted Prof. Richard Frase of the University of Minnesota Law School. The prosecution will likely question the length of time that Mr. Chauvin used the restraint, since Mr. Floyd was clearly not resisting in the final minutes of the encounter, Mr. Frase said.
Civil-rights lawyer Brian Dunn, managing partner of the Cochran Firm’s Los Angeles office, suspects that in the end the video evidence will trump expert medical witnesses brought in by the defense.
“When you’re trying to tell people not to believe their eyes, it’s an uphill battle,” said Mr. Dunn, who has represented more than 200 clients accusing the police of misconduct.
But Mr. Frase noted that “the defense only has to get one juror to have a reasonable doubt.”
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