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The Derek Chauvin trial: what does the outcome signify?

The video of George Floyd’s death circulated the globe, causing reverberations felt on every societal level throughout the world. This video displayed Derek Chauvin, at the time an active Minneapolis police officer, pressing his knee onto George Floyd neck as he struggled to breathe. It was later determined, in a private autopsy conducted by the family of George Floyd, that he had died as a result of “asphyxia due to neck and back compression” during the arrest conducted by Derek Chauvin.

The trial of Derek Chauvin lasted three weeks and after 10 hours of deliberation over two days. The jury came to the decision that Derek Chauvin was guilty of manslaughter, second-degree murder and third-degree murder for killing George Floyd. The sentence for each murder charge was presumptively 12.5 years for an individual with no previous criminal record like Chauvin. 

However, the state has requested that the judge impose stricter sentencing regarding Chauvin due to several distressing factors of the case at hand. This includes the fact that the murder of George Floyd transpired in front of children, and for the “particular cruelty” of Chauvin in his treatment of Floyd. Equally, the state stated that Chauvin should carry an additional sentence due to his abuse of his authority and power as an active police officer.

This could have resulted in a 75-year prison sentence for Derek Chauvin

Third-degree murder has the potential to result in a 25-year sentence with second-degree murder the potential of a 40-year sentence. Chauvin was also found guilty of second-degree manslaughter which has the potential of a maximum 10-year prison sentence. In theory, this could have resulted in a 75-year prison sentence for Derek Chauvin. 

However, state law in Minnesota states that individuals are to be sentenced according to the top count. This means that if an individual was charged with second-degree murder (which carries a 40-year prison sentence), alongside a second-degree manslaughter charge (which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years), the individual would carry the longest sentence of the two charges which is 40 years rather than the two sentences combined. While Judge Cahill – who oversaw the case – could have chosen to ignore this state law, this is a rarity of events that he did not opt for.

Key arguments of the defence

There were many arguments presented from the perspectives of both prosecution and defence. Eric J Nelson, Derek Chauvin’s lawyer, drew two main arguments when presenting his clients’ case. The first was that it could be argued that Chauvin’s actions were permissible under the policies of the Minneapolis Police Department. The second issue that Nelson raised was whether George Floyd’s death was actually induced by Chauvin himself.

He stated to the jury that it would be their decision what they would justify as reasonable force by assessing what “a reasonable officer” would determine as necessary

Nelson discussed the decision-making of Derek Chauvin for nearly three hours, trying to convince the jury that no crime had been committed – if they believed a police officer would be justified in utilising reasonable force. He stated to the jury that it would be their decision what they would justify as reasonable force by assessing what “a reasonable officer” would determine as necessary action in the same situation.    

Additionally, Nelson continued to argue that the events which transpired before officers forced George Floyd’s face onto the ground should be closely analysed – noting how Floyd (stating he was claustrophobic) resisted when officers tried to handcuff him. However, the prosecution retorted these claims by stating multiple times that Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for exactly nine minutes and 29 seconds. 

Nelon also contested this fact of the case, claiming that it only reflected one part of the evidence. He stated that it was not a “proper analysis” of what transpired, as “the nine minutes and 29 seconds ignored the previous 16 minutes and 29 seconds”. Furthermore, the lawyer continued to argue his case by stating that bystanders who urged the officers to get off George Floyd and assess his pulse were actually distracting said officers from Floyd’s worsening condition. 

He elucidated his point further by noting how the moment George Floyd took his last breath, a bystander and off-duty firefighter approached Derek Chauvin, inciting him to withdraw his mace. Nelson justified his client’s actions by stating that individuals make decisions they perceive to be morally correct during “highly stressful situations.”

Nelson also continued by highlighting what he believed to be ‘misgivings’ of the prosecutors’ medical experts. He stated that their evidence “flies in the absolute face of reason and common sense.” 

He argued that the testimony of a pulmonologist, Dr Martin J Tobin, was selective about the evidence presented and that it misconstrued the context of the entirety of the videos – stating that the evidence was not “in its proper context.” While Nelson did not debate that Floyd had died because of an overdose, however, he did imply that Floyd’s poor heart health along with the fentanyl and methamphetamine found in his system could have been contributing factors to his death.

Key arguments of the prosecution

The prosecutor, Steve Schleicher, attempted to walk an extremely fine line throughout the trial in his pursuit to gain justice for George Floyd. Schleicher highlighted multiple times that even though George Floyd’s death did ignite a wave worldwide of protests in opposition to systemic racism and police brutality, this trial was not intended to be an anti-police prosecution. Protests in the USA, in particular, had seen calls for public funding to be redirected from police departments to elsewhere within communities. However, Schleicher categorised the trial as “a pro-police prosecution.” 

Additionally, Schleicher continued to elucidate that Derek Chauvin was a police officer who had defied the policies of the department. Schleicher went on to state that the actions of the defendant were “not policing”, but in fact “an assault.”

Schleicher reiterated the evidence provided by the prosecution for nearly two hours, and attempted to cause doubt surrounding the evidence provided by Chauvin’s lawyer. His main counterargument to Nelson was that it was Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes that led to Floyd’s untimely death on 25 May. He continued that it was not because of any heart condition Floyd may have had, or a drug overdose as implied by Nelson. 

[Schleicher argued that George Floyd was] much more than just a news story or a headline, but a person

Schleicher continued by highlighting how Floyd was desperate to breathe and struggling to create enough space for his chest, as the force of Chauvin’s knee was “too much.” Schleicher stated that Floyd was trapped by “unyielding pavement” beneath him which was as “unyielding as the man who held him down.”

Additionally, Schleicher aimed to emphasise to the jury that Floyd was a human being with a loving family, friends, and memory – much more than just a news story or a headline, but a person. He described and presented photographs of Floyd’s childhood and loving family.

The defence during the trial attempted to justify the actions of Chauvin by mentioning Floyds’ drug addiction, as well as the accusation that he was attempting to buy cigarettes with a fake $20. However, Schleicher pressed that it was not George Floyd who was on trial – stating further that “he didn’t get a trial when he was alive”.

[Derek Chauvin] knew better, he just didn’t do better

– Steve Schleicher, Prosecuting Attorney

Additionally, despite claims by the defence that Floyd resisted arrest, Schleicher continued to highlight he complied with the demands of police officers throughout – despite the officers approaching Floyd’s car by aiming a handgun at his head. He continued that the police officers showed a complete “indifference” to his life. 

Schleicher highlighted that Chauvin could have listened to fellow officers – his training and the bystanders urging him to remove his knee from George Floyd’s neck – however, he did not. Schleicher powerfully stated that Chauvin “knew better, he just didn’t do better.”

Despite claims from Nelson that the jury was only being presented as a part of the evidence, Schleicher continued to emphasise to the jury that the case was transparent and “exactly what you thought when you saw it first.”

The significance of the verdict. What does this mean now?

The verdict of this case is extremely significant, as firstly the juries must be convinced “beyond reasonable doubt” that the defendant is guilty of a conviction to be upheld.

Additionally, the sentence given to Chauvin – 22.5 years in prison – is one of the longest to be given to a former police officer as a result of the use of deadly force. The Floyd family lawyer, Ben Crump, described the sentencing as “historic” and bringing the USA closer to healing by “delivering closure and accountability”.

More importantly, its significance is even larger because the USA is a country with a legal system that rarely holds police officers accountable for killing individuals while on active duty. It is even rarer for police officers to be held to account when their victims are black. The verdict has been noted by some individuals as a milestone, and a move towards the correct direction in holding police officers to higher accountability. 

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