MINNEAPOLIS – Attorneys were expected to lay out their cases Monday in the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is charged in the death of George Floyd last spring – an incident that ignited protests worldwide against police brutality and touched off a racial reckoning in the U.S.
In advance of opening statements, hundreds of people gathered at rallies and vigils Sunday to honor Floyd’s life and draw attention to the court proceedings. Monday morning, members of Floyd’s family and lawyers linked arms and knelt down in front of the courthouse in silence.
Floyd, a Black man, died in police custody on May 25, 2020, after Chauvin, who is white, pinned his knee against Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes. Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. If convicted of the most serious charge, he could face 10½ years to 15 years in prison under sentencing guidelines for first-time offenders.
Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill has said the trial could last up to four weeks
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- Ahead of opening statements, the prosecution argued that the defense should not be allowed to characterize Floyd’s state of mind and the defense agreed it would be off limits.
- The judge noted that he would be very strict about prohibiting arguments or inferences during opening statements by each side. The lawyers can say what “appeared” to be happening during Floyd’s arrest, but not what “should have” happened.
- Over the last three weeks, 15 jurors were selected; 12 will deliberate, two will serve as alternates and one was dismissed Monday. The panel includes nine white jurors and six jurors of color, including three Black men, one Black woman and two mixed-race women.
- A limited number of people are allowed in the courtroom due to COVID-19, including one member each of Floyd and Chauvin’s families.
Floyd family members take a knee outside courthouse: ‘The whole world is watching’
George Floyd’s cousins, brothers and nephew, along with lawyers representing the family and the Rev. Al Sharpton, gathered in front of the courthouse Monday morning and spoke to the public before taking a knee for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time Chauvin was seen kneeling on Floyd’s neck. Subsequent court documents, however, put the time at more than 9 minutes.
“Today starts a landmark trial that will be a referendum on how far America has come in its quest for equality and justice for all. It will be prima facie evidence,” civil rights attorney Ben Crump said. “The whole world is watching.”
A news helicopter clattered overhead as Crump cited the Declaration of Independence and Floyd’s supporters demanded he receive the same justice as a white person would.
“This murder case is not hard when you watch that torture video fo George Floyd. And we have to call it what it is: it was torture,” Crump said. “We’re not asking for anything extraordinary. We’re asking for equal justice under the law.”
George Floyd’s brother, Rodney, warned Americans watching the trial that attorneys for the defense were expected to cast doubt on Floyd’s character. “Please, don’t be entertained by the lies they’re going to throw out on him. The truth is … he was murdered in the streets,” Rodney Floyd said.
On Sunday, the Rev. Billy G. Russell held an evening vigil at his church with members of Floyd’s family, Sharpton and Crump. When he spoke Sunday, Sharpton pointed out that many cases never resulted in criminal charges against the officers involved, citing past incidents including the beating of Rodney King and the killing of Eric Garner. He said that Monday marks an opportunity for the country to hold police accountable.
“The criminal justice system is on trial,” Sharpton said. “Chauvin is in the courtroom, but America is on trial.”
How to watch opening statements in the Derek Chuavin trial
Visual and audio recordings are not typically allowed in Minnesota courtrooms without authorization from a judge. Cahill upheld his decision to livestream the trial in December because of immense global interest in the case and limited courthouse space.
What’s happened so far in Chauvin’s trial?
The judge and attorneys for the defense and prosecution have selected a jury and decided what evidence the jurors will be allowed to hear.
Jury selection began in early March with an initial pool of more than 300 potential jurors who were asked to fill out a pre-trial, 13-page questionnaire about their prior knowledge of the case, their media exposure and whether they could set aside preexisting opinions to serve as an impartial juror. The judge and attorneys spent 11 days interviewing jurors and ultimately selected 15. Chauvin was in the courtroom each day, taking notes on a legal pad.
The process faced some delays after Minneapolis announced a historic $27 million wrongful death lawsuit with Floyd’s family. The defense tried to delay or move trial, arguing news coverage of the announcement tainted the jury. Hennepin County District Court Judge Peter Cahill denied those motions, but he dismissed two jurors who had been chosen already and excused three prospective jurors when they said they were swayed by the settlement.
The judge also ruled the jurors will be allowed to hear some evidence related to a prior arrest of Floyd. In a May 2019 arrest, police responded to information about illegal narcotics activity and found substantial amounts of drugs on and near Floyd, according to court filings. Cahill said the arrest is “remarkably similar” to the fatal 2020 encounter, and that jurors can hear evidence from the 2019 arrest only related to Floyd’s medical state – not his emotional behavior – since it pertains to the cause of death in the 2020 incident.
Who are the jurors?
The jurors come from a wide array of backgrounds. Some are well-versed in the case; others haven’t followed the months of developments.
The panel includes a chemist, a nurse who has been caring for patients on ventilators, a retiree and a social worker. Seven are in their 20s or 30s, three in their 40s, four in their 50s and one woman is in her 60s.
Given the circumstances of Floyd’s death – a Black man dying under the knee of a white police officer – the racial makeup of the jury is a key concern. Nine of the jurors self-identify as white, two as multiracial and four as Black, according to the court.
On May 25, Chauvin was seen on video kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes as Floyd cried out that he couldn’t breathe. Floyd, who was accused of using a a counterfeit $20 bill, was handcuffed and pinned to the ground by three officers during the arrest. Chauvin continued to press his knee into Floyd’s neck minutes after he became nonresponsive as bystanders repeatedly asked officers to check for a pulse.
Chauvin and three other officers were fired a day after Floyd’s death and were charged the following week. The three other officers involved – Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao – are charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and manslaughter. They are scheduled for trial together in August.
Contributing: Trevor Hughes, Christal Hayes, Clairissa Baker, Kevin McCoy, Eric Ferkenhoff