Derek Chauvin is on trial for the death of George Floyd. The United States criminal justice system is not

But over the next four weeks, the debate in Chauvin’s trial in a Hennepin County, Minnesota court will shift to legal details. How exactly Did Floyd die, medically speaking? How aware was Chauvin that Floyd could die? What does “culpable negligence” really mean?

As opening statements for the trial begin Monday, the gap between the social issues at stake and the legal ones will be particularly wide, CNN senior legal analyst Laura Coates said.

“Ideas of excessive force in general, ideas of police reform, ideas of police responsibility, ideas of systemic injustice, ideas of the treatment of black victims at the hands of white defendants, all of these will be mentioned and be the elephants in the courtroom, but in the courtroom none of that can overshadow the government’s burden of proof in this specific trial, “Coates said.

“Derek Chauvin is the defendant. Not the American justice system. Not all police officers.”

These are the people at the center of Derek Chauvin's trial
Chauvin has pleaded not guilty to the charges of second degree manslaughter, third degree murder and second degree murder.

For the first time in Minnesota, the trial will be streamed live in its entirety to accommodate Covid-19 attendance restrictions, giving the public a glimpse into the biggest case of the Black Lives Matter era.

Just getting to the start of the trial, Floyd’s case has progressed more than most of the deaths of black people in police custody. Many of those deaths do not result in charges for the officers involved, including the cases of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice. The cases that have reached trial were not broadcast to the masses.
Perhaps the most analogous case to Floyd’s was the 2013 televised trial of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer charged with the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. It was Zimmerman’s acquittal in that trial that led to the start of #BlackLivesMatter as a hashtag and movement.

Now, eight years later, the return to a televised courtroom may offer proof of how much has changed since then and how much the American justice system is capable of adapting to changes outside of the courtroom walls.

How two lives collided

George Floyd lost consciousness and died under the knees of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020.
Floyd, 46, was born in North Carolina, raised in Houston and moved to Minnesota as an adult to start over, working as a security at a restaurant.
Derek Chauvin, 45, had been an officer with the Minneapolis Police Department from 2001 until he was fired in the wake of Floyd’s death.
Their lives collided on May 25, 2020, when police were called for a man who had used a counterfeit $ 20 bill at a Minneapolis store. Two officers were directed to a parked car with Floyd in the driver’s seat, handcuffed and moved to put him in the back of a police car, according to the amended complaint.
Minneapolis to pay George Floyd's estate $ 27 million after the city council voted to settle the lawsuit with the family

Chauvin and another officer arrived on the scene and fought to get Floyd into the vehicle, according to the complaint. Chauvin allegedly threw Floyd to the ground in a prone position and placed his knee on Floyd’s neck and head. His knee stayed there even as Floyd pleaded, “I can’t breathe,” said “I’m about to die,” and eventually stopped breathing, the complaint says. He was pronounced dead in a hospital shortly after.

The final moments of Floyd’s life, captured on video by horrified and angry viewers, illustrated with clear images what black Americans have long said about the ways the criminal justice system dehumanizes blacks.

His death sparked mass protests under the Black Lives Matter banner in cities across the country, as well as incidents of looting and rioting.

“Your family will miss you, George, but your nation will always remember your name,” Reverend Al Sharpton said at Floyd’s funeral. “Because your neck was one that represents us all, and how you suffered is how we all suffer.”

What the essay will focus on

In this still from the video, defense attorney Eric Nelson, left, former Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin, right, and Nelson's assistant Amy Voss, back, appear to jurors on Monday, April 22. March 2021 at the Hennepin.  Minneapolis County Courthouse.

However, the trial will not debate Floyd’s symbolism or the merits of Black Lives Matter. Instead, it will focus primarily on two things: the cause of death and Chauvin’s intent.

The Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s autopsy listed Floyd’s cause of death as heart failure due to “police restraint, restraint and compression of the neck,” and called it a homicide. Medical Examiner Dr. Andrew Baker also pointed to Floyd’s hypertensive atherosclerotic heart disease, fentanyl poisoning and recent methamphetamine use as “other major conditions.”

Chauvin’s defense attorneys have argued that those other conditions were the actual cause of death.

In a filing last August anticipating this defense, attorney Eric Nelson argued that Chauvin was acting within police policy and had no intention of harming Floyd. He argued that Floyd’s cause of death was not Chauvin’s knee, but the result of a drug overdose combined with pre-existing heart problems, a previous Covid-19 infection, and other health problems.

To obtain a guilty verdict, prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Chauvin caused Floyd’s death. Therefore, a number of forensic pathologists are expected to take the stand to debate this issue, including a likely controversial cross-examination of Dr. Baker.

Judge reinstates third-degree murder charge against Derek Chauvin in George Floyd's death

The three charges differ mainly in how they interpret Chauvin’s intention and mindset during the arrest.

The second-degree murder charge says Chauvin intentionally assaulted Floyd with his knee, inadvertently causing Floyd’s death. The third-degree murder charge, which was added to the case in recent weeks, says Chauvin acted with a “depraved mind, without regard for human life.” And the second-degree murder charge says Chauvin’s “culpable negligence” caused Floyd’s death.

Combined, the charges give jurors three different ways to decide how responsible Chauvin is for Floyd’s death, if at all. – and how well he understood the risk to Floyd.

The defense has not indicated whether Chauvin will testify in his own defense. But given the importance of your mindset to the charges, you can do it to try to explain your behavior and win the sympathy of the jury.

“He’ll almost certainly take the stand and say, ‘We had no idea this guy could die. We were just trying to keep him under control until the doctors get there,'” said Richard Frase, a professor of criminal law at the University of Minnesota Law School.

“You don’t have to convince the world that you are innocent,” Coates said. “You have to plant a seed of reasonable doubt in the mind of a juror.”

Six men and nine women have been chosen to serve on the jury, and 12 of them will ultimately decide Chauvin’s fate.

The charges should be considered separate, so Chauvin could be convicted by all, some or none. If convicted, Chauvin could face up to 40 years in prison for second-degree murder, up to 25 years for third-degree murder and up to 10 years for second-degree murder.

However, the actual convictions would likely be much lower because Chauvin has no prior convictions. Minnesota sentencing guidelines recommend approximately 12.5 years in prison for each murder charge and approximately four years for the involuntary manslaughter charge.

Other accused officers will not testify

Plexiglass barriers have been placed throughout the Hennepin County Government Center for testing.

Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao, all former Minneapolis police officers, were also on the scene with Chauvin and are charged with aiding and abetting second degree murder and aiding and inciting second degree murder.

They have pleaded not guilty and their joint trial will take place this summer. They are not expected to testify at Chauvin’s trial.

The jury has been selected for the trial of Derek Chauvin.  This is what we know about them

Given the riots and looting that occurred when Floyd died, state and local authorities have taken significant security measures for the trial in what they call “Operation Safety Net.” The Hennepin County Government Center is surrounded by fences and barricades, and the building will be empty, apart from those involved in Chauvin’s trial and approved personnel.

“Residents should expect a gradual increase in the presence of the police and National Guard as we progress through the trial,” Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said Thursday.

In addition, the Covid-19 precautions have reorganized the interior of the field.

All those attending the trial should distance themselves from others and wear a mask, although witnesses and attorneys may remove their masks during testimony and other court statements. Plexiglass has also been installed around the courtroom.

Due to space limitations, only one member of Floyd and Chauvin’s family will be able to attend the trial each day. Despite all the global impacts of the case, this remains at its core a deeply personal tragedy for the Floyd family.

“We need justice because the things my family is going through, no one else will ever go through,” Floyd’s brother Philonese Floyd told CNN earlier this month. “We are shattered and shattered right now.”


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