Sunday, April 18, 2021
George Floyd’s death, which was captured on video, is difficult to watch and, quite frankly, disturbing. In that video, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes, including several minutes after which Floyd had lost consciousness. Floyd’s death sparked protests (and, in some areas, riots) throughout the country for many months and, over the last three weeks, Chauvin has stood trial for Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis. Both the prosecution and defense are expected to deliver closing arguments tomorrow and the jury may begin deliberating as soon as Tuesday.
When deliberations begin, the jury will consider the following three charges against Chauvin: (1) second-degree unintentional murder (felony murder); (2) second-degree manslaughter; and (3) third-degree murder. Second-degree unintentional murder, which carries a prison sentence of up to forty years, applies to a defendant who “causes the death of a human being, without intent to effect the death of any person, while committing or attempting to commit a felony offense other than criminal sexual conduct in the first or second-degree with force or violence or a drive-by shooting.” Under Minnesota law, the underlying felony must pose a “special danger to human life,” thus requiring at least some risk of death. Second-degree manslaughter applies where an individual’s death results from “the person’s culpable negligence whereby the person creates an unreasonable risk, and consciously takes chances of causing death or great bodily harm to another.” Third-degree murder applies to individuals who “without intent to effect the death of any person, cause the death of another by perpetrating an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind, without regard for human life.”
Determining which, if any, charge will result in a conviction is difficult to predict. During the trial, the prosecution, led by Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, presented thirty-eight witnesses. This included testimony from Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, who stated that Chauvin’s decision to kneel on Floyd’s neck was not an approved police technique and that Chauvin should have ceased kneeling on Floyd’s neck when he longer presented a threat to the officers (the evidence shows that Chauvin continued restraining Floyd for approximately three minutes after Floyd was unconscious). Additionally, the prosecution presented numerous medical experts who testified that hypoxia, which is a low level of oxygen that leads to asphyxia, caused Floyd’s death, and that the asphyxia resulted from Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes.
The defense, led by attorney Eric Nelson, argued that Floyd’s death was caused by a combination of factors unrelated to Chauvin’s actions, such as drug use and heart disease. For example, the toxicology report revealed that Floyd had ingested a potentially lethal amount of Fentanyl, and that Floyd had methamphetamine and THC in his system. Additionally, Floyd had atherosclerosis and hypertensive heart disease. The defense’s expert, Dr. David Fowler, concluded that these conditions, coupled with the drugs Floyd ingested and his inhalation of carbon monoxide from the squad car, collectively caused his death. The defense also presented a use-of-force witness who testified that, under the circumstances, Chauvin did not use excessive force.
It is difficult to predict whether the jury will convict Chauvin and, if so, what charge will most likely result in a conviction. The prosecution’s witnesses, particularly Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo and Dr. Martin Tobin, were quite compelling. Defense attorney Eric Nelson, however, effectively cross-examined several witnesses and focused extensively on drugs and heart disease as the causes of death.
Arguably, the causation issue will most likely consume much of the jury’s deliberations and will require a determination of whether Chauvin’s actions – or drugs and heart disease – caused Floyd’s death. Indeed, given the amount of Fentanyl in Floyd’s system and his underlying cardiovascular conditions, it may be difficult for jurors to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Chauvin caused Floyd’s death. Importantly, however, the prosecution need only show that Chauvin’s actions were a contributing cause of Floyd’s death, which renders a conviction more likely.
Ultimately, considering the arguments, testimony, and evidence, it seems that, if the jury does convict Chauvin, it will likely be for second-degree manslaughter. A conviction on the third-degree murder charge is implausible because Chauvin’s actions, although reprehensible, did not threaten to harm multiple persons or “others” as the statute requires. Also, a conviction on the second-degree unintentional murder charge seems less likely (although possible) because the felony murder statute has rarely, if ever, been applied to law enforcement officers in the context of restraining a suspect. This is particularly true concerning a suspect who is resisting arrest because, at least for a portion of the time, the restraint used is arguably justified. In addition, given that Chauvin was unaware of the level of Fentanyl in Floyd’s system or of his preexisting heart conditions, it may be difficult to demonstrate that Chauvin intended to inflict bodily harm on Floyd or that he knew his actions were likely to result in such harm. However, a conviction on second-degree manslaughter is arguably justified because Chauvin was culpably negligent by kneeling on Floyd’s neck for minutes after Floyd was unconscious and thus no longer presented a threat to the officers. Indeed, Chauvin’s failure to stop kneeling on Floyd’s neck despite his lack of consciousness cannot be justified.
If the jury returns an acquittal, it will almost certainly result from a belief that, although Chauvin’s actions were appalling and entirely unnecessary, they did not cause Floyd’s death. This is certainly a possibility and will depend on the jury’s assessment of the experts’ credibility and of the relevant medical reports.
Also, if the jury returns a guilty verdict, defense attorney Eric Nelson (or whomever Chauvin retains) will almost certainly appeal. Specifically, Nelson will likely argue, among other things, that Judge Peter Cahill’s refusal to change the venue for the trial deprived Chauvin of the right to a fair trial. And if the jury returns a guilty verdict on the third-degree murder charge, it may be overturned on appeal because Chauvin’s actions, however deplorable, did not threaten harm to multiple people.
Regardless, George Floyd’s death was a tragedy. The video of his death is appalling. Whatever the jury’s verdict, this incident will hopefully lead to reforms in how police are trained in the use of force and de-escalation techniques, such that an incident like this never occurs again.
 Minn. Stat. 609.19(1).
 Minn. Stat. 609.205(1).
 Minn. Stat. 609.195.