Criminal Law

By Satomi Hamon


George Floyd murder trial: What is the defence?

On 25 May 2020, Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis police officer at the time, pinned George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, to the ground by the neck with his knee for 9 minutes and 29 seconds after responding to a call that Mr Floyd allegedly used a counterfeit $20 bill at a local convenience store.

After struggling under Mr Chauvin’s weight and saying that he couldn’t breathe, Mr Floyd died.

The incident triggered worldwide protests, violence and an examination of racism and policing in America.

Mr Chauvin was fired from the Minneapolis police force as a result and is currently on trial in relation to 3 criminal charges. The evidence in the trial has finished, and closing arguments are set to begin on Monday, 19 April 2021. The charges Mr Chauvin faces are: second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter.

None of those charges require the prosecution to prove that Mr Chauvin actually intended to kill Mr Floyd.

The elements of the charges are as follows, from most serious to least:

  1. For second-degree murder, the prosecution must prove:
    • Chauvin’s kneeling on Floyd’s neck was a felony assault (also known as ‘aggravated assault’); and
    • Chauvin’s kneeling on Floyd’s neck caused Floyd’s death.
  2. For third-degree murder, the prosecution must prove:
    • Chauvin’s kneeling on Floyd’s neck was “eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind, without regard for human life”; and
    • Chauvin’s kneeling on Floyd’s neck caused Floyd’s death.
  3. For second-degree manslaughter, the prosecution must prove:
    • Chauvin displayed “culpable negligence,” creating an unreasonable risk, and that he consciously took “chances of causing death or great bodily harm” by kneeling on Floyd’s neck; and
    • Chauvin’s kneeling on Floyd’s neck caused Floyd’s death.

Each charge requires proof that Mr Chauvin’s actions caused Mr Floyd’s death.

Mr Chauvin’s best possibility of avoiding conviction was therefore to introduce doubt about the cause of Mr Floyd’s death.

The relevant autopsy report found that Mr Floyd’s heart and lungs stopped while Mr Chauvin’s knee was on his neck, and that his death was a homicide. The report also found that Mr Floyd had heart disease and drugs in his system.

Prosecution case

The prosecution called evidence from eyewitnesses, Minneapolis police officers and paramedics, law enforcement experts and a range of medical experts in a bid to prove Mr Floyd died because of Mr Chauvin’s actions.

Law enforcement veterans testified for the prosecution that Mr Chauvin used excessive force and went against his training, while medical experts said Mr Floyd died of asphyxia, or lack of oxygen, because his breathing was constricted by the way he was held down.

The prosecution case consisted of 2 weeks of evidence.

 Defence case

The defence argued Mr Floyd died from underlying medical conditions and the drugs in his system. In his opening statement, Chauvin’s lawyer told the jury Mr Floyd “died of a cardiac arrhythmia that occurred as a result of hypertension, his coronary disease, the ingestion of methamphetamine and fentanyl, and the adrenaline flowing through his body.”

The defence called a police use-of-force expert and a forensic pathologist to help make the case that Mr Chauvin acted reasonably against a struggling suspect and that Mr Floyd died because of an underlying heart condition and his illegal drug use.

The defence case consisted of 2 days of evidence. Today, Chauvin invoked his 5th amendment right not to take the stand. Meaning he will not give evidence.

 The jury

The jury selection for this trial was particularly difficult given the nature of the matter and the amount of publicity surrounding Mr Floyd’s death. All potential jurors completed a 16-page questionnaire before arriving in the courtroom. Questions asked them to weigh in on policing in the US, racial discrimination, Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, their own interactions with police and their level of familiarity with the Floyd case.

After a lengthy selection process 14 jurors, including 2 alternates, were selected. 5 men and 9 women were chosen. Of the 14 jurors, 8 are white, 4 are black and 2 are mixed race.

After the parties’ closing arguments which will begin on Monday, the jury will retire to consider its verdict.

If Mr Chauvin’s lawyer was able to raise a doubt about the cause of Mr Floyd’s death in the mind of just one jury member, then it will be unable to find Mr Chauvin guilty of any of the charges.