The trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin, who is charged with the murder of George Floyd, has been delayed for at least a day. The district court judge is awaiting an appeals decision about adding a third-degree murder charge, on top of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges. Chauvin was caught on video last May kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes in Minneapolis, sparking worldwide protests against police violence.
The third-degree murder charge, under Minnesota law, means the perpetrator acted in a way that was reckless at the risk of causing death and carries a sentence of no more than 25 years. Prosecutors are arguing for the charge because it is easier to prove than second-degree unintentional felony murder. The pending charge would also provide options for jurors about how to convict, since police killings have historically gone unpunished. Police kill about 1,000 people in the line of duty every year. But according to a multiyear study on police crime using Google News, only a total of 80 American cops were charged with murder or manslaughter between 2005 and April 2017, and only 28 of those were convicted.
Last October, Hennepin County District Court Judge Peter Cahill had dismissed a third-degree murder charge, but the state Court of Appeals on Friday said Cahill must reconsider reinstating it. Chauvin’s lawyer told Cahill on Monday that he plans to appeal that decision but is willing to move forward with the trial. Prosecutors, however, asked that the trial be delayed until jurors know whether they are supposed to consider the third-degree charge.
Cahill sent jurors home on Monday and ordered them back Tuesday while he and the lawyers figured out next steps.
“The state is fully ready to go to trial, but the trial must be conducted in accordance with the rules and the law,” Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who is leading the prosecution team, said in a statement late Monday morning. “Now that Mr. Chauvin has stated his intention to appeal Friday’s Court of Appeals ruling to the Minnesota Supreme Court, as is his right, the District Court does not have jurisdiction to conduct jury selection or hear and rule on other substantive matters in the trial.”
Floyd’s death last summer hurtled the nation into a moment of racial reckoning. The outcome of Chauvin’s trial, over one of the most graphic cases of police violence in recent history, will serve as a major indicator of whether the American justice system is ready to hold law enforcement accountable.
George Floyd’s death was a turning point for how the world saw police violence
On May 25, the death of 46-year-old Floyd was captured on video and caught the world’s attention. The footage shows Chauvin pinning Floyd’s neck to the ground as he begged and uttered the words, “Please, I can’t breathe” — a moment that parallels the last words of Eric Garner, also a Black man, who died after a New York police officer’s chokehold in 2014.
Minneapolis bystanders cried and voiced their concerns for Floyd as another police officer watched the scene unfold. Three other fired officers who were involved face counts of aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter and second-degree unintentional murder, and are scheduled for a single trial in August. The end of the video footage shows Floyd turning silent and motionless.
Soon after, protests and civic unrest erupted in cities across the country, all calling for police accountability and racial justice. Longstanding conversations of police reform emerged, shining the spotlight on measures to defund or abolish the police, and to divert and invest funds toward community resources such as mental health support and housing initiatives. Even Minneapolis’ own city council moved to defund the police by diverting nearly $8 million from the proposed policing budget to other community services. During the November elections, voters across the country overwhelmingly approved a slew of local police reform ballot measures — such as creating and improving police oversight boards, changing police department staffing and funding, and requiring public access to police body and dashboard camera recordings.
On Monday, hundreds of protesters gathered outside heavily barricaded and secured government buildings in Minneapolis ahead of Chauvin’s trial. Minneapolis is bracing for another moment of unrest as it deployed more police and National Guard around the city. Activists say the heavy presence of law enforcement, chain links, and barricades is further proof of the changes that need to happen and that “property matters more than human lives.”
“The irony of the city calling its plan a ‘safety net’ while failing to provide all of its residents with the social, economic, and environmental resources to survive is a cruel reminder of our city leaders’ priorities,” Reclaim The Block, one of the leading organizations in Minneapolis demanding justice and police accountability, wrote in a statement on Monday. “This is not preparing for conflict, it is provoking conflict. They want to evade accountability at all cost and continue to uphold white supremacy and incite violence on a grieving community.”
If jury selection picks up tomorrow, opening statements are expected on March 29 with the rest of the trial proceedings set to continue for another two to four weeks.