Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Derek Chauvin's Conviction Should Be Overturned

On April 20, 2021, after a brief deliberation, a jury convicted former police officer Derek Chauvin for second-degree unintentional murder (i.e., felony murder), second-degree manslaughter, and third-degree murder in connection with George Floyd’s death.

Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, who has already moved for a new trial before Judge Peter Cahill, will certainly appeal Chauvin’s conviction. Although the likelihood of succeeding on appeal is relatively small, several issues in Chauvin’s case render the guilty verdict vulnerable to reversal.

1.    The jury deprived Chauvin of a fair trial

Chauvin’s defense team will likely argue that the conduct and composition of the jury deprived Chauvin of a fair trial. First, the defense will assert that the jury violated Chauvin’s Fifth Amendment rights. The Fifth Amendment provides, among other things, protection against self-incrimination. At a criminal trial, a defendant may invoke the right against self-incrimination and thus refuse to testify. Importantly, jurors may not infer guilt from a defendant’s silence; doing so is grounds for overturning a guilty verdict.

During the trial, Chauvin invoked his Fifth Amendment right and thus did not testify. Unfortunately, there is some evidence that at least one of the jurors construed that silence against Chauvin. Specifically, shortly after the verdict, Brandon Mitchell (Juror No. 52), spoke to the media and, after being asked whether Chauvin’s silence impacted the jury, stated as follows:

Yeah, definitely it [Chauvin's silence] did when we were in the deliberation room; you know, a few people wondered like they wanted to actually hear from [him]. They were curious on you know, just what his thoughts might have been throughout.  You know it probably was to his detriment that he didn’t take the stand ’cause people were curious on what his thoughts were throughout the entire incident.”[1]

At the very least, Mitchell's statement may cause Judge Cahill to question the jurors regarding the effect, if any, that Chauvin’s silence had on their deliberations.

Second, the defense will argue that the jury was impermissibly biased against Chauvin. Once again, Brandon Mitchell’s conduct provides a basis upon which to support this assertion. After the trial, a photograph emerged of Mitchell wearing a t-shirt that stated, “Get your knee off our necks,” which Mitchell allegedly wore at a Washington, D.C. rally commemorating Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech.[2]

The photograph’s impact on appeal will depend primarily on whether Mitchell was truthful when answering the jury questionnaire during voir dire. Specifically, Mitchell was asked the following questions:

“Did you, or someone close to you, participate in any of the demonstrations or marches against police brutality that took place in Minneapolis after George Floyd’s death?” one question read, according to the newspaper.

 “Other than what you have already described above, have you, or anyone close to you, participated in protests about police use of force or police brutality?”[3]

Mitchell answered “no” to both questions.

At the very least, the photograph of Mitchell wearing a shirt stating, “Get your knee off our necks,” coupled with his “no” answer to the second question, supports a further inquiry by Judge Cahill into Mitchell's potential bias.

2.    Failure to sequester the jury

Chauvin’s defense team will certainly argue that the jury should have been sequestered from the beginning of the trial, not merely during deliberations. There may be some merit to this argument, given: (1) the pervasive media coverage in the months following Floyd’s death and particularly during the trial; (2) the statement by Maxine Waters, in which she stated that protesters should “get more confrontational” if a guilty verdict was not reached.[4] Indeed, Judge Cahill stated that Waters’ statement may lead to a reversal on appeal. Furthermore, Alan Dershowitz stated:

Well, first, what was done to George Floyd by officer Chauvin was inexcusable, morally, but the verdict is very questionable because of the outside influences of people like Al Sharpton and people like Maxine Waters,” … Their threats and intimidation and hanging the Sword of Damocles over the jury and basically saying, 'If you don’t convict on the murder charge and all the charges, the cities will burn, the country will be destroyed,' seeped into the jury room because the judge made a terrible mistake by not sequestering the jury. 

And a statement by alternate juror Lisa Christensen, although not necessarily relevant to the appeal, suggests that the pressure to reach a guilty verdict may have impacted the jury. When questioned about the possible social unrest that may result from the verdict, Christensen stated as follows:

There was a question on the questionnaire about it and I put I did not know. The reason, at that time, was I did not know what the outcome was going to be, so I felt like either way you are going to disappoint one group or the other. I did not want to go through rioting and destruction again and I was concerned about people coming to my house if they were not happy with the verdict.[5]

Coupled with Brandon Mitchell’s statement (and the photo), Christensen’s statement arguably supports the argument that the jury should have been sequestered.

3.    Failure to Change Venue

Chauvin’s defense will argue that Judge Cahill erred by failing to grant a change of venue. To begin with, the incessant media coverage in Minneapolis and elsewhere following Floyd’s tragic death, coupled with the widespread protests in Minneapolis, which universally condemned Chauvin’s actions (some of which turned violent), may support the argument that Judge Cahill should have granted the defense’s motion to change venue. However, the prosecution will argue that the media coverage and protests occurred throughout Minnesota and the United States, thus rendering it unlikely, if not impossible, that Chauvin would have received a fairer trial anywhere in Minnesota. The prosecution will probably succeed on this aspect of the venue issue.

That, however, does not end the inquiry. Shortly before jury selection, Minneapolis announced that it reached a settlement of twenty-seven million dollars with Floyd’s family in connection with the family’s civil suit. The timing of this settlement is certainly suspect and a legitimate question exists concerning whether the settlement affected the jurors' impartiality.  

4.    Insufficiency of evidence on one or more of the charges

The defense will likely argue that the evidence did not support a conviction for second-degree unintentional murder (felony murder) or third-degree murder. The third-degree murder conviction is problematic because Minnesota’s statute requires that an individual engage in conduct that is a threat to “others.” It is difficult to conceive of how Chauvin’s actions threatened anyone by Floyd, thus warranting a reversal of the conviction on this charge. As a practical matter, however, this will have no impact on the sentencing because the conviction for second-degree unintentional murder, which results in the most severe sentence, will likely be upheld, and because the sentences for each conviction will be imposed concurrently, not consecutively.

***

Ultimately, the vast majority of commentators and citizens viewed Chauvin’s actions as egregious and criminal. Moreover, the likelihood of overturning a conviction on appeal is small.

But in this case, the chances of success are higher. Based on Brandon Mitchell’s statements (and the photograph), the failure to sequester the jury despite the incessant and negative media coverage, and the twenty-seven million dollar settlement on the eve of jury selection, Chauvin’s defense team will have a strong argument to overturn the conviction.

And for the reasons stated, the conviction should be overturned.

Process matters – regardless of Chauvin’s egregious and deplorable conduct.

 

[1] Scott Cosenza, Did Floyd Jurors Violate Chauvin’s Fifth Amendment Rights? (April 29, 2021), available at: Did Floyd Jurors Violate Chauvin's 5th Amend Rights? - Liberty Nation

[2] See Paulina Villegas, Photo of Chauvin Juror Wearing BLM T-Shirt at March Raises Questions of Impartiality, Experts Say (May 3, 2021), available at: Brandon Mitchell, juror in Derek Chauvin’s murder trial, faces allegations of prejudice after photo surfaces - The Washington Post

[3] Jonathan Turley, Juror No. 52: Does Chauvin Have a New Challenge Over Juror Brandon Mitchell? (May 4, 2021), available at: Juror 52: Does Chauvin Have A New Challenge Over Juror Brandon Mitchell? – JONATHAN TURLEY

[4] See Chandelis Duster, Waters Calls for Protestors to ‘Get More Confrontational’ If No Guilty Verdict Is Reached in Chauvin Trial (April 19, 2021), available at: Maxine Waters calls for protesters to 'get more confrontational' if no guilty verdict is reached in Derek Chauvin trial - CNNPolitics

[5] Jordan Davidson, Stunning Chauvin Juror Confession: I Was Worried About ‘Rioting and Destruction’ and ‘People Coming to My House’ to Protest Verdict (April 23, 2001), available at: Stunning Chauvin Juror Confession: I Was Worried About ‘Rioting And Destruction’ (thefederalist.com)

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/appellate_advocacy/2021/05/derek-chauvins-appeal-should-be-overturned.html

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Comments

You might want to do some legal research before you post. Your very first argument is legally frivolous under Minnesota law (and, for what it's worth, under the relevant federal rules as well).

Posted by: Anon | May 23, 2021 3:12:09 PM

I did extensive research. I also spoke with several attorneys in Minnesota. Regarding the first argument, I simply stated that it warranted a further inquiry by Judge Cahill. Obviously, you didn’t think that the second, third, and fourth arguments were frivolous.
I agree with Alan Dershowitz that “the judge made a terrible mistake by not sequestering the jury,” that there is “no confidence that this verdict was produced by due process and the rule of law, rather than the influence of the crowd,” and that “it should be reversed on appeal.” The media circus (including the statements by Maxine Waters and Al Sharpton) coupled with the failure to sequester the jury, the refusal to change venue, and the convenient twenty-seven-million-dollar settlement on the eve of trial, supports reversal. As Judge Cahill stated, “I’ll give you that Congresswoman Waters may have given you (the defense) something on appeal that may result in this whole trial being overturned.” Sure, like most appeals, it is an uphill battle, but there are some strong arguments supporting reversal here.
Maybe you should do some legal research before posting such a condescending comment. You might discover a few cases that support my arguments.

Posted by: Adam Lamparello | May 23, 2021 7:24:46 PM

Your very first argument doesn't warrant further inquiry from the judge because the Minnesota Rules of Evidence prohibit the court from doing so. And given that was the first argument you listed, I didn't bother looking into the others.

Posted by: Anon | May 24, 2021 7:33:30 AM

Your first argument: "At the very least, Mitchell's statement [about holding the Chauvin's right to silence against him] may cause Judge Cahill to question the jurors regarding the effect, if any, that Chauvin’s silence had on their deliberations."

The Minnesota Rules of Evidence states:

Upon an inquiry into the validity of a verdict or indictment, a juror may not testify as to any matter or statement occurring during the course of the jury's deliberations or to the effect of anything upon that or any other juror's mind or emotions as influencing the juror to assent to or dissent from the verdict or indictment or concerning the juror's mental processes in connection therewith, except that a juror may testify on the question whether extraneous prejudicial information was improperly brought to the jury's attention or whether any outside influence was improperly brought to bear upon any juror, or as to any threats of violence or violent acts brought to bear on jurors, from whatever source, to reach a verdict, or as to whether a juror gave false answers on voir dire that concealed prejudice or bias toward one of the parties, or in order to correct an error made in entering the verdict on the verdict form.

So, no, the judge won't be questioning the juror about his admission that he held Chauvin's right to silence against him. Indeed, jurors unfortunately will regularly admit to doing stuff like this, and the defense can do nothing about it.

Posted by: anon | May 24, 2021 7:42:43 AM

Useful information for my work

Posted by: run 3 | Jun 1, 2021 7:00:19 PM

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