The George Floyd Case Goes to CourtThe Daily
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- 29 Mar 2021
On the docket on Monday at a Minneapolis courthouse is the biggest police brutality case in the United States in three decades: the trial of Derek Chauvin, a white former police officer accused of killing George Floyd, a Black man, last year.The case centers on a 10-minute video, shot by a bystander, showing Mr. Chauvin kneeling on Mr. Floyd’s neck. That video reverberated around the world.We look at the contours of the trial and what we know about it so far.Guest: Shaila Dewan, a national reporter covering criminal justice for The New York Times. Sign up here to get The Daily in your inbox each morning. And for an exclusive look at how the biggest stories on our show come together, subscribe to our newsletter. Background reading: Read an exploration of the life and death of George Perry Floyd Jr., from “I want to touch the world” to “I can’t breathe.”Mr. Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, faces charges of manslaughter, second-degree murder and third-degree murder in the death of George Floyd. Here’s what you need to know about the trial.In more than 19 years on the Minneapolis police force, Mr. Chauvin had a reputation as a rigid workaholic with few friends. He sometimes made other officers uncomfortable.For more information on today’s episode, visit nytimes.com/thedaily. Transcripts of each episode will be made available by the next workday.
From a New York Times, I'm Michael Barbaro. This is an elite. Today, the long awaited trial of the former Minneapolis police officer accused of murdering George Floyd, I spoke with my colleague Shila, talking about what we've learned so far about the prosecution, the defense and the jury.
It's Monday, March 29th.
Charlotte, describe what is happening this morning in Minneapolis, on the docket in Minneapolis today is State versus Showband and that's the trial of Derek Showband, the white police officer accused of killing George Floyd, a black man here in Minneapolis last summer. And this is arguably the biggest police brutality case in this country, at least in 30 years since the trial of the officers who beat Rodney King.
Right. And there are parallels because what happened to Rodney King in Los Angeles in the early 1990s was caught on video. Those police officers, most of them white, were recorded kicking and clubbing King, who was black. Right.
Just like the Rodney King case centered on a video, the George Boy case also centers on a cataclysmic video that the world watched. And that video will be the central piece of evidence in the trial that starts today.
And just remind us of the context of that video.
So in this video that was shot by a bystander on a Minneapolis street, a Memorial Day of last year, it's about 10 minutes long and it shows a white police officer kneeling on the neck of a black man as he becomes progressively less responsive and finally unconscious.
And in the video, before you even know his name, before we knew George Bush's name, it was just this very iconic image. All you can see is the white officer kneeling, he's fully uniform, you can see his boots and George Floyds face, he is begging for his life and after he stops talking. The bystanders are yelling at the police. Check his pulse, you're killing him, get off him and it goes on and on. I mean, 10 minutes is an eternity in this video.
And the world reacted in outrage, I kind of think of it like a pressure cooker, like you have a pressure cooker instead of, you know, there's like a little like metallic rattle kind of goes on like this quiet metallic rattle.
And then it's like this video just like opened the lid of that pressure cooker and all this simmering stuff just spewed out and sparked national protests, global protests, apologies, contrition, racial reckonings. If you'll recall, people of all political stripes condemned what happened in this video. Supporters of law enforcement condemned what happened. This video. Even law enforcement condemned what happened in the video. It was just incontrovertible. People could not stomach what they were seeing. I mean, it just burst this pod wide open.
And during all that time, Shila, while the country and the globe are reacting to that video, legal decisions are being made back in Minneapolis and charges are being brought to remind us of those.
So there were four officers involved in this arrest. All of them were fired and all four of them were charged with murder. Derek Chauvin is a central figure in this case and he is facing trial first and alone. He's charged with second degree murder, third degree murder and manslaughter.
Can you explain those charges and why there are three of them? Sure. It's basically three bites at the apple for the prosecution because they may be able to charge the elements of one and not the elements of another. And they don't know what the jury is going to go for. So second degree murder, which carries the highest penalty of up to 40 years, is described as unintentional murder. Basically, that just means the prosecutors don't have to prove that Derrick Chauvin went into the incident intending to kill George Boyd.
They're going to argue that he was assaulting George Boyd when George Boyd died. OK, third degree murder is a little different. It's more like behaving dangerously in a way that might kill someone. And I think the phrase in Minnesota law is with a depraved mind. So it's a little more random and less intentional and second degree murder and manslaughter is that you acted in such a way that created a risk of death for this person and that carries a sentence of up to 10 years, the lowest sentence.
So the jury has sort of a menu of options of which charge they may think applies, if any.
So all these charges convey different degrees of responsibility. But if they result in a guilty verdict, that would mean that the legal system is holding Derek Chauvin responsible for the death of George Ford. That's right.
And the reason why prosecutors want the biggest menu of options that they can get is because there's a long history of American juries declining to convict police officers, even in some pretty stark cases like the Rodney King case, for example, where the world saw the video and the officers were acquitted. And in the George FOID video, it looks to ordinary people like maybe the most open and shut case of police brutality you could possibly have. But once you're in the courtroom, there are a lot of legal questions that have to do with things you don't see on the video.
And you also have this traditional deference to police officers because of the nature and the dangerousness of their job. So one big question is, are people more skeptical of the police now?
Has that changed in the past year or so, given that, Shila, how do the lawyers for both sides in this case, the prosecution and the defense approach the period leading up to today? What have you learned about their legal strategy? And I wonder if we should start with the prosecution.
So the prosecution's legal strategy is simple and clear. It's the video. We're going to show you the video as many times we can, and then we're going to have medical experts explain what is happening on the video. That's their strategy. The video that shocked the world is their key piece of evidence in the case.
What about beyond just the video? So another thing the prosecution wants to do is allow in testimony and evidence about Derek Showman's prior misconduct or what they say is misconduct. So he had numerous complaints against him as an officer. And what they did was they went and found several incidents which they said indicated a pattern of use of force or an understanding that the kind of force he used on George employed would be harmful. Mm hmm. And the judge has allowed in a couple of those incidents.
Interestingly, though, one incident is where he used a neck restraint on a woman who was said to be not resisting arrest. And the other one is one where Derek Chauvin was credited with helping to save a man's life because he did something really different. He didn't keep the man in a prone position on his stomach, which is very dangerous. He put them in the side recovery position.
And when the man got to the hospital, the medical experts said that he had helped save their life, that he would have died otherwise. And so the prosecution wants to introduce that to say that Chauvin knew that he knew how to save someone's life.
He knew the difference. And he chose the most dangerous, possible way to treat George Floyd. Right.
They want to show that he knew or should have known that what he was doing to George Floyd was life threatening and also that it went against all of his training and police policy.
OK, what about the defense? The defense has to overcome this video. And for the defense, the central question is going to be cause of death. What actually caused George Floyd to die? And they're going to argue that George Floyd didn't die because there were police officers kneeling on him. He died because he had underlying heart condition, high blood pressure, and that was all exacerbated by his use of drugs. They're saying that because the medical examiner found methamphetamine and then all in his system.
Is there any evidence from a third party that supports that defense claim?
This is not going to be an easy argument necessarily for the defense to make, because the official medical examiner report says that George Floyd died of a homicide. Said that it was cardiac arrest caused by what the police did to him and they have had to get their own medical expert to contest that and say, no, it was a heart attack caused by George Floyd's pre-existing cardiovascular conditions.
What else has stood out to you about the way the defense is preparing to make their case in this trial?
Defense is going to argue that George Floyd was resisting arrest when they approached him that Memorial Day. They want to argue that he has a pattern of resisting arrest, that he resisted arrest that day, and that therefore their use of force against him was warranted.
Mm hmm. And is the defense going to be allowed to make that argument?
You know, it's really interesting. The judge has been incredibly deliberative about this, and he is going to allow them to present some evidence of an arrest that happened a year prior to George Floyds death, but in a very limited way. And what the judge has said is that George Floyds demeanor is not important. His emotional state in that arrest is not important. And that's because George Floyd is not the one on trial here. It's not his intention that matters.
And so the judge has said all that matters about this previous incident is the medical facts.
So in summary, the broad strokes of the strategies from both sides beyond what's in the video itself is that the prosecution will argue that Derek Chauvin has a history of brutality as a police officer. And the defense strategy will be not about Derek Chauvin, but about the conduct and the history of George Floyd. Does that feel accurate? That's exactly right, Michael. But maybe the most important key part of both the prosecution and the defense strategy has already taken place.
And that's the care and attention they took as they spent weeks weeding through the jury pool, picking out the 12 members of the jury that are going to sit and hear this case. All the way back. This podcast is supported by Facebook 25 years ago, phones weren't smart yet and people still said, fax it to me. The Internet has changed a lot since 1996, but that's the last time comprehensive Internet regulations were passed. That's why Facebook once updated Internet regulations to set clear guidelines for addressing today's toughest challenges protecting privacy, enabling safe and easy data portability between platforms and more.
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This is John Aligarh. I'm a national correspondent with The New York Times and I cover issues of race. What I'm trying to do is help people understand how race is lived in America. I'm writing about people whose experiences, whose voices are often pushed aside and ignored because I truly believe that you won't really have all the context you need to understand our country and our world unless you hear from these people and let you see what they see and you feel what they feel like.
I do. Every time I'm out in the field, I want to make sure that we tell the stories of the marginalized, of the oppressed with the same respect and dignity that we tell the story of politicians, business people and other people in power. And if this kind of work is important to that, I would ask you to support us by subscribing to The New York Times. You can do that at NY Times dot com slash subscribe. So, Shelly, you just said that the jury selection in this case was very revealing about the strategy of the prosecution and the defense.
I want to just start with what this jury selection process looked like and felt like. I know you watched it very closely.
My sense is that it was always seen as something that was going to be very difficult just to pull off because of how many people have seen this video that's at the center of this case and how many people have developed a pretty strong opinion about what happened. That's right.
The judge set aside three full weeks, almost as much time as he set aside for the trial itself just to pick the jury. And last fall, they sent out a 14 page questionnaire which was returned by more than three hundred jurors who filled this out and sort of a first take at screening jurors for know some of the mundane things, like, could you even do this? Do you have young children when your job allow you to do it? But more importantly, questions like what are your attitudes about the criminal justice system?
How do you feel about Black Lives Matter?
How do you feel about police? Do you think the police are racist? I mean, just pages and pages of questions and they're trying to get at this really central idea, which is what is your lens? We're all going to look at the same set of facts here. We're all going to look at the same video.
But what lens are you seeing it through and what did you make of that? What do you think the lawyers are trying to really get at there?
Well, the lawyers are using these questions to try to figure out who they want to kick off the jury and who they think will be on their side and they want to keep on. And the questions are almost like they're trying to get at this great divide in America that we talk about. They want to know which side of the divide is this person on? Are they going to be for me or against me?
Good morning, members of the jury panel. First of all, can you all hear me? And when they got the jurors into the courtroom, they could ask them to elaborate. My name is Pete Cahill and I am one of the judges of the district court. And you have been summoned as potential jurors in the case of St. Clair.
Even these mundane Run-Of-The-Mill details became fodder for this question of 20 feet. Where do you fall on the spectrum?
Good morning. Hello. Juror number 20. Yes.
For example, this one potential juror said he was a football fan. It was interesting. You talked a little bit about enjoying attending sporting events. Yes, right off. You go to games. That at the stadium? Yeah, absolutely. Vikings season ticket holder go to Twins' games.
And the prosecution said there are some people who have decided to not watch NFL football anymore as sort of a protest of players who would take a knee during the national anthem. Are you aware of that? Sure, yes. What are your thoughts about that? My thoughts is the players can do whatever they like to voice any sort of protests or beliefs.
The guy said, well, I have no problem with that. And the prosecutor said, well, you know, some people think that's disrespectful to law enforcement, disrespectful to the military.
And the guy said, I'm kind of on the belief that law enforcement or especially military members defend our country for the right to believe what you want to believe.
Each of these things is like a cue. It's like the prosecution and the defense are putting little checkmarks in their columns. Yes. No good, bad pro defense. Anti defense.
Come on up. Have a seat.
And there was one woman they asked, you know, there were some people and perhaps very vocal folks who would say that the restrictions that the government placed on people for social gatherings and whatnot went a little too far.
How do you feel about the covid restrictions? It's been pretty tough, right?
Bars, restaurants, gyms. What's your opinion of the restrictions?
They're erring on the side of conservatism and just trying to keep it as, you know, as safe as possible. I think also that may have, as it turned out, gone overboard.
But then you hear and she said the covid restrictions have been a little too tight. So that, again, is a proxy for kind of conservative attitude that the prosecution wants to avoid. So they moved to get her off the jury. That's kind of fascinating.
So this jurors objections to government restrictions on people's movements during the pandemic was seen by the prosecutors as potentially something that could inform her bias against George Floyd or towards the police.
Yeah, I mean, it's a little reductive, but they have all of these indicators and they fit together like pieces of a puzzle and they just don't want too many conservative puzzle pieces, nor do they want someone whose conservative views are really strongly held, so strongly held that they can't set them aside.
What about the defense?
What did you observe in their interactions and their questions of jurors that helped you see them pursue their strategy?
So the defense really. He has the uphill battle here because so many people have seen this video. The questioner asks for your perspective on Mr. Chauvin and you indicated it was a very negative opinion. Yes, I formed what I would say very negative, but I would say the way you handled that situation struck me as very negative.
So many of the jurors said outright that they already had a negative opinion of Derrick Showband.
So one of the biggest things the defense would do was kind of not so much to try to find out what the jurors were thinking, but rather to kind of use their questions as a way of telling them things.
So you formed an opinion as to the guilt or innocence of Mr. Chauvin at this point? No. And you're telling us that you're willing to examine all of the evidence in this case? Right.
I think I feel a lot better about the situation if I was to examine more evidence, because right now you have sort of an opinion of what happened that day. But like you said, you know, there should be times in life where you are wrong.
And the biggest thing they were telling them was there's more to this story. There are two sides to this story. So they're just kind of using the questions to remind people that they haven't heard it all yet.
So if after reviewing all of the evidence, you formed the opinion that what happened that day was not a crime, you could vote not guilty. If the facts, the evidence show that he did, that there was proper policing and there was other circumstances that caused that fatal incident. You know, there's other things I'd be willing to support right at the end of the day.
But I think the defense sort of gave up on the idea almost that they were going to get any really conservative, really pro law enforcement people onto this jury. They just weren't that many of them in the jury pool and the ones that there were there, the prosecution pushed off the jury.
So the issue the defense seems to be focused on then, is the question of impartiality. They're trying to understand if these jurors can be impartial. Right.
You were asked the question, discrimination is not as bad as the media makes it out to be. And you strongly disagreed with that. Why do you strongly disagree with that proposition? Because of being a black man in America? I experienced racism on a day to day basis.
For example, there was this one guy who lived in Minneapolis and he said that he knew that the criminal justice system was biased against black people.
He is a black man.
You see a lot of black people get killed and no one is held accountable for it. And you wonder why or what was the decision? So with this, maybe I'll be in the room to know why.
And apparently this guy's opinions were so strong that the defense exercised its right to remove him from the jury.
So do we think that this man's statements, which for many, many people will seem like statements of fact that there is discrimination and racism in law enforcement led to him being taken off the jury?
I mean, we don't know exactly, but we can surmise that sort of the sum total of all of his opinions led to him being taken off the jury. The only problem is that a lot of what he said is demonstrably true. We know from study after study that the criminal justice system is biased against black people. And we know that the Minneapolis police do use force against black suspects more than white suspects.
So it's sort of like became a little bit of a controversy is like, what if you believe the truth? Can that get you kicked off a jury?
Mm hmm. And the answer is yes. How does the question of race and the race of the potential jurors come up and get discussed and dealt with in this process? It would seem to be an essential issue.
It's essential, but it's also not addressed and discussed because you can't address and discuss it. You cannot consider the race of a juror. You can't strike a juror off the jury because of their race. And so it's sort of like this implicit thing. And what was interesting in this. Jury selection process that normally raises a proxy like we were talking about all of these proxy questions that kind of give the lawyers a clue which side you might be on. And so being white has sort of been a proxy for being pro law enforcement and maybe in this case, pro defendant and being black has been a proxy for being more willing to convict a law enforcement officer or anti law enforcement.
And some experts who watch this process said is that in this case, it sort of broke down like those proxies didn't quite work anymore, mostly because there were a lot of white potential jurors saying, you know, this country has a real race problem and something needs to be done. And I really think we need to get rid of the bad officers.
So say more about the final composition of this jury after all these weeks and questions and this process. Who ends up on this jury? This jury is actually pretty diverse, six of the people on it are white, six are people of color. There are three black men, one black woman, two women who identify as mixed race. And what's really remarkable and surprising to many people is that the jury is more diverse than the city of Minneapolis, and this almost never happens on juries.
So Minneapolis is about 20 percent black and you have at least a third, depending on how you count you of at least a third of this jury is black, huh?
So this is the rare case where a jury is more diverse than the actual place itself in terms of something like race.
Yes, it's really rare.
And it's also really important in this case because can you imagine if there were no people of color on this jury? Or very few. The verdict just would not be viewed as legitimate by the community, so it was really important that they they have a representative jury.
So based on what you just described, can we say one way or another? Whether this jury is favorable to the defense or the prosecution, I don't think anyone is prepared to say that, Michael, because. Just remember that for the defense, it only takes one hold out, doesn't want to convict to hang the jury, so there's just no telling. It's too uncertain. And they only need that one. Thank you very much. We appreciate it.
Thanks for having me. Opening statements in the trial are expected to begin this morning at 10:00 a.m. Central. We'll be right back. Right now, savings goals might feel out of reach, but with the U.S. bank mobile app, we can help you put money aside in a way that won't make you miss it, using personalized insights you can save in a way that works in real life and all the curveballs that come with it. So let's get you closer to whatever it is you're saving for, because that U.S. bank, even our tools are smart enough to put people first.
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