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Did Derek Chauvin cause George Floyd’s death and were his actions ‘reasonable’? Jury must now decide

Did former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin act reasonably when he applied force on George Floyd? And did those actions, including his knee pressed on the neck and back of the 46-year-old Black man, play a significant role in his death?

These are the two main questions jurors will have to consider as they decide the legal fate of Chauvin, who was put on trial in Hennepin County District Court in Minneapolis on charges of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the death of Floyd.

“If the prosecution can’t prove that Derek Chauvin was the cause of George Floyd’s death or substantially caused his death, then Derek Chauvin can’t be found guilty in terms of his death,” said David Schultz, a University of Minnesota law professor. 

“I think the two major points that the jury’s going to have to think about: Was Chauvin acting within his legal authority? Did he cause the death or substantially cause the death of George Floyd?”

Floyd died on May 25, 2020, after Chauvin, who is white, pressed his knees on the back of his neck and back for about nine minutes as two other officers held him down face first on the pavement while he was handcuffed. He had been detained outside a convenience store after being suspected of paying with a counterfeit bill.

Faces 40 years in prison

If convicted on the most serious of charges, Chauvin faces up to 40 years in prison. But the city itself is on high alert for potential violence in the event of an acquittal. The outcome of the high-profile trial is being closely watched after video of the arrest of Floyd captured by a bystander prompted widespread outrage, setting off protests over racism and police brutality across the U.S. and around the world that began late last May.

A family takes a photo in front of a mural of George Floyd, the 46 year-old Black man whose death nearly a year ago prompted widespread outrage, setting off protests against racism and police brutality across the U.S. and around the world. (John Minchillo/The Associated Press)

The jury will have to sift through 14 days of evidence that included scores of exhibits, video and testimony from 45 witnesses, most of whom were called by the prosecution.

‘In some sense, this case is a battle of the experts,” said Ronald Sullivan, a law professor at Harvard Law School and director of the university’s Criminal Justice Institute.

“If the jury believes that the substantial causal factor of the death was a police action, then the question is whether the police conduct was reasonable. Whether the use of force was reasonable,” said Sullivan, who also represented the family of Michael Brown, a Black teen killed by a police officer, in reaching a settlement with the City of Ferguson, Mo., on a wrongful death claim

WATCH | Highlights of Chauvin trial:

CBC’s Susan Ormiston takes a look back at 14 days of testimony at the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is charged with killing George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who died after Chauvin pinned him to the ground by kneeling on his back and neck for about nine minutes while two other officers held him down. 3:35

On that point, the prosecution elicited testimony from use-of-force experts from different regions, as well as from within the city’s own police force, who agreed the actions of Chauvin, who had been trained in use-of-force tactics, were excessive. The city’s police chief, Medaria Arradondo, testified that Chauvin violated police policy and should have stopped once Floyd had stopped resisting and signalled he was in distress.

The defence countered with one witness of their own, Barry Brodd, a former officer in Santa Rosa, Calif., who said Chauvin was justified to take the measures he did and was acting with “objective reasonableness.”

Officers do enjoy statutory authority to use force when they operate within the line of duty and they are clearly empowered to use force to protect themselves or the public, said Schultz, the University of Minnesota law professor.

The U.S. Supreme Court, through a variety of decisions, has said officers enjoy a “qualified immunity” to use force if they’re acting reasonably, as a reasonable officer, he said.

Schultz said the prosecution’s use-of-force arguments were critical in the trial to try to establish that Chauvin was not following department procedure or protocol or following state law when he forced Floyd to the ground and kneeled on his neck — that he was acting beyond what a reasonable officer would do.

Yet, the defence’s best argument might be that the situation on the ground in real time necessitated Chauvin to take the steps he did, said Sullivan, the Harvard law professor.

Some of the prosecution’s own witnesses testified that sometimes people who are high on drugs will wake up and be violent again, he said.

One officer on the scene testified the crowd was becoming increasingly unruly, and distracted the officers from the care of Mr. Floyd, Sullivan said.

Cause of Floyd’s death

Finally, the jury will have to determine the cause of Floyd’s death.

Ted Sampsell-Jones, a law professor at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, Minn., says the prosecution had to prove Chauvin’s conduct was a “substantial contributing factor” to Floyd’s death.

Court heard from several prosecution medical witnesses who testified that Floyd died of positional asphyxia, meaning his oxygen was cut off as he was pinned to the ground face first while Chauvin put his knee into his neck and back for more than nine minutes.

Certainly one of the most powerful pieces of evidence for the prosecution was the videos, from both bystanders and police body camera footage, showing Floyd pressed to the pavement, pleading that he can’t breathe, before he finally becomes unresponsive and police say they can’t find a pulse.

Sampsell-Jones said the video will have an impact on the jury.

“At the end of the day, they’re going to be mostly influenced by the video in this case. I mean, that’s the thing. That’s the one piece of evidence that is so overwhelming,” he said.

The defence argued Floyd’s death was caused by his pre-existing heart condition combined with the drugs fentanyl and methamphetamine in his system, and carbon monoxide from the exhaust of the squad car along with the adrenaline rush from his scuffle with police. 

Sampsell-Jones said he believes the defence did a good job describing how this could have led to Floyd’s death, or at least potentially raising reasonable doubt.

Sullivan said the fact fentanyl was discovered in Floyd’s system could pose a problem for the prosecution.

“People know from watching the news and so forth how powerful fentanyl is. [Emergency responders] wear gas masks if they’re in the presence of it.

Another potential issue for the prosecution is the testimony from the county medical examiner who conducted Floyd’s autopsy. While Dr. Andrew Baker agreed that Floyd’s death was caused by the actions of the officers, he didn’t list asphyxia as a cause. Instead, he said the police’s actions put too much strain on Floyd’s troubled heart.

Baker also said Floyd’s heart disease, as well as his history of hypertension and the drugs that were in his system, played a role in his death.

But the prosecution doesn’t have to prove that Chauvin was the sole or even primary cause of death, said Sampsell-Jones. 

“All they have to show is really that he was a contributing cause. That’s a pretty low bar. So I think the jury, even if it gets a little bit confused about the competing medical evidence, will still probably come down saying that if nothing else, Chauvin  was a contributing cause of death.

“And that’s enough in Minnesota to count as homicide.”

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