The trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd lasted three weeks, but the jury deliberations barely a day. A bystander video of the May 25, 2020 arrest of Floyd seemed to seal Chauvin’s fate, the scene of Chauvin pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes—bystanders pleading with him to let Floyd breath— ending with Floyd losing consciousness and dying, was the star witness. On Tuesday, April 20, the jury delivered a unanimous verdict, finding Chauvin guilty of second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. Here, Stanford Law Professor Robert Weisberg, co-director of Stanford Criminal Justice Center and co-author of a new report on selective de-policing, discusses the case and the verdict.
The arrest and killing of George Floyd last May shook Minneapolis and the country. What is the significance of the case?
Broadly put, it will be seen as a test case for police accountability. In legal terms, it might be a model for future prospectors about how to put on a clean case. It might also be seen as a vindication for the idea that it’s better to have such cases prosecuted by the state Attorney General rather than the local prosecutor.
Are you surprised by the verdict?
Not really. The prosecutor put on a very clean and precise case, and as the prosecutor himself said in closing argument, in the end the video just told the story.
What does this decision mean for policing in the U.S.? We’ve heard that the “blue line” has been broken.
I think that’s an overstatement. Ultimately this was just one case and a special one.
How well did the media cover the trial?
Fairly sloppily, especially because it failed to educate the public about the difference between the common connotation of the word “murder” and the unavoidably technical meaning of the term in actual criminal statutes made worse by Minnesota’s particularly opaque and even incoherent penal code. My sense is that the prosecutor and judge did a good job of helping the jury navigate this problem.
What was the burden for prosecution?
As always, in doctrinal terms, proof beyond a reasonable doubt. In blunter terms, convincing a jury to overcome the propensity to defer to police on-the-spot judgments.
Legally, what is the difference between an officer reacting in a split second in self-defense and what Chauvin did to George Floyd, putting his knee on his neck for over 9 minutes?
It is crucial to see that this case is VERY different from the great majority of homicides by police. Most are shooting cases where it is a foregone conclusion that the officer had intent to kill—indeed the officer/defendant will concede that point because the case is all about self-defense. The Chauvin case was to some extent about justification—how much force could be used if the civilian was resisting. But the prosecutor didn’t and probably couldn’t argue here that Chauvin intended to kill. It was more about the subtle question of whether Chauvin, while not having purpose to kill, was animated by a sadistic willingness to take a great risk of the person’s death.
What was the key defense of Chauvin and how strong a defense was it? Floyd did resist the officers’ attempt to put him in the squad car.
It was an awkward combination of (a) I wasn’t really the cause of death anyway (which might imply a concession that he at least committed an assault), (b) I was doing what my training taught me was the right thing to do with resistance from a powerful person, and (c) on any or all of the issues there is enough conflict or ambiguity in the evidence to create a reasonable doubt of guilt, even if you aren’t confident that I am innocent.
The autopsy report from May 2020 found that Floyd died of “cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint and neck compression.” The medical examiner, Dr. Andrew Baker, listed in the autopsy “other significant conditions” including “arteriosclerotic and hypertensive heart disease; fentanyl intoxication; [and] recent methamphetamine use.” Can you tell us the legal significance of the official cause of death? How did that play out in the verdict?
In some ways this is simple. The prosecutor had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Chauvin caused the death. Even if Floyd was already physically vulnerable because of other factors, if he would not have died when he did, absent Chauvin’s knee, then legal cause is proved. A so-called “contributing cause” is still a cause.
And what was the key point in the prosecution of Chauvin?
Believe your eyes. This was demonstrably a virtual case of torture with callous sociopathic indifference to the risk that you might kill the man. That is a blunt but I think accurate translation of the legal conclusion.
Read Selective De-Policing: Stanford Law Team Proposes New Routes to Public Safety in Racially Diverse Communities in Stanford Lawyer magazine
During the trial, the prosecution put forward witnesses that disputed the use of neck restraints and said that the way Chauvin used it to restrain Floyd was not in keeping with police training. How important is that to the case?
In the broad category of “neck restraint” there are safe and legal ways of doing so that police learn in training. But the city police chief here impressed the jury with his testimony that the actual use and duration of the neck restraint in this case were way out of bounds.
And there is a duty of care that police officers have for those they are restraining, right?
Where the officer is not invoking self-defense and so is not conceding intent to kill, he has a duty to balance his use of non-lethal force (i.e., to restrain a resisting person) with concern for the person’s safety.
Was it unusual for Chauvin’s police chief testified against him?
Very rare. And it left the defense with not much more than a random outside purported expert. The jury probably shrugged and surmised that lawyers can always find a counter expert.
Does Chauvin’s record on the job matter to the case? We’ve read that he was the subject of at least 22 complaints or internal investigations during his more than 19 years at the department, only one of which resulted in discipline.
That might be a marginal factor in sentencing. But those incidents can’t count as priors under the Minnesota sentencing formula.
And what about Chauvin’s defense teams’ attempt to show that the crowd caused Chauvin to take his attention away from Floyd?
The jury obviously rejected it because if anything Chauvin seemed quite in control of what he was doing. Plus, he is veteran cop who has faced challenging situations before.
Policing is a challenging and dangerous service. But excessive force is sometimes alleged. Can you talk about why it is difficult to hold police officers accountable when these cases come up?
A combination of: (a) often the force is not excessive, and (b) excessiveness is a very amorphous standard that is heavily fact-specific in application, and juries tend to defer to police explanations of why the force was necessary and proportionate.
The case against the three other police officers who have been charged in Floyd’s death will begin soon. Do you want to say anything about that?
Now that Chauvin has been convicted there is a good chance that they will have no choice but to plead guilty. But in any event, their cases will also merit a lot of attention because they may tell us something about the wider institutional responsibility of other officers and the extent of collective responsibility.