Derek Chauvin trial: the ‘obvious challenges’ prosecutors face in police cases

The graphic video of George Floyd’s murder was the catalyst for the worldwide protests against racism in the police. It will be more difficult to know whether it will be enough to persuade a Minneapolis jury to convict the kneeling police officer.

It is rare for an American police officer to face criminal misconduct charges. In this regard, the case brought against Derek Chauvin – the policeman who buried his knee in the black man’s neck for almost nine minutes as he called his mother and found it difficult to breathe – was an encouraging sign for activists in hopes of increasing the police responsibility.

Still, experts say securing a conviction will be an uphill battle, given the legal hurdles that have traditionally stood in the way of similar cases and the inherent trust many Americans have in the police.

When he took over the prosecution last year, Keith Ellison, Attorney General of Minnesota, warned that it would be difficult to get a conviction, “not because we doubt our resources or our abilities. . . but history shows that there are obvious challenges here ”.

Opening statements for the trial are expected to begin on Monday and the proceedings will be broadcast online in an unusual move sparked by the coronavirus pandemic and intense attention to the case.

The images of Floyd’s death will be just one of many carefully selected pieces of evidence that the jury will be allowed to consider before reaching their verdict on Chauvin, a decision that could add more fuel to the volatile debate around race and the police.

Prosecutors hedged their bets by pursuing three counts: second and third degree murder and manslaughter. The most serious, second degree murder requires prosecutors to prove that Chauvin unintentionally killed Floyd by committing a felony. Manslaughter only requires proof that Chauvin took an unreasonable risk of causing death.

Manslaughter carries a maximum jail term of 10 years, compared to 40 years for second degree murder.

A sketch of the courtroom from a video stream of the proceedings in the trial of Derek Chauvin. He was fired from the Minneapolis Police Department after the death of George Floyd © REUTERS

Without the publicity generated by the video, Chauvin and the others might not have lost their jobs – a fact that could tarnish their credibility with the jury, said Jeannine Bell, professor at the University of Law School of Law. Indiana studying the police.

Yet video footage has not always resulted in guilty verdicts in similar trials. The case against Michael Slager, a police officer from South Carolina who was filmed shoot a man in the back, ended with an annulment of the trial. Eventually, he pleaded guilty to a federal charge of violating Walter Scott’s civil rights.

In the 2017 trial of Jeronimo Yanez, an officer in the suburbs of Minneapolis who killed a school canteen worker Philando Castile, jurors viewed footage of the immediate aftermath of the shooting the Castile partner had. broadcast live.

An entrenched trust in law enforcement can make it difficult to secure convictions against police officers, Bell said. “People believe the police,” she said. “The statistics are that people who sit on juries trust the police, so they are more likely to believe the police, and what the police say, than what witnesses say.”

Jurors’ confidence in the police also influences how they perceive other evidence. The Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s autopsy last year determined that Floyd’s cause of death was “cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement, restraint, and neck compression” and found evidence of fentanyl and methamphetamine in his body. An independent autopsy ordered by Floyd’s family cited the cause of death as asphyxiation.

Judge Peter Cahill also allowed Chauvin’s defense team to speak to the jury about parts of a traffic stop on May 6, 2019, where there was evidence Floyd had swallowed drugs after the police approached him.

Jurors might be “more likely to see [Chauvin’s actions] as reasonable use of force, “because racial prejudice associates black men with violence and crime, Bell said.

But the video also makes the defense more difficult, said Dan Herbert, the attorney who represented former Chicago cop Jason Van Dyke, who was convicted of murder in 2018. Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, would be right that they “can look beyond this very powerful and compelling evidence”.

“The main argument they will make is the causal aspect of the murder charges,” he said. “If they can punch enough holes in prosecutors’ evidence that Chauvin was responsible for the death.” . . that’s probably what they’re going to spend most of their time focusing on. “

Police officers are rarely charged, let alone sentenced. Unofficial records of police shootings kept by news agencies and researchers show that police now shoot and kill nearly 1,000 people a year in the United States. (Adjusted for population size, US police kill people 64 times more often than the police in the UK.)

Between 2005 and 2019, 104 police officers were arrested and charged with murder or manslaughter for an on-duty shooting, according to the Police Integrity Research Group at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Thirty-five were sentenced.

Public polls suggest that there are deep divisions over how Floyd’s death is viewed and how those views have evolved since last summer.

A USAToday / Ipsos poll last June shown 60% of Americans considered Floyd’s death murder, but that number fell to just 36% earlier this month. Racial divisions were stark: 64 percent of black respondents believed it was murder, compared with just 28 percent of whites, who were more likely than blacks to view Chauvin’s actions as negligence.

Whether Chauvin committed a crime or, as his defense team should argue, whether Floyd’s death was a result of drug use, will be up to the jury.

After a lengthy vetting process, 15 people were selected: 12 to serve, plus two alternates and one to be fired on March 29 if the others show up. There are three black men, one black woman, two mixed race women and nine white.

Prosecutors in the Chauvin trial could benefit from the racial diversity of the jury. White jurors might not understand the prevalence of police misconduct, said Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, a sociologist at Brown University, author Crook County: Racism and Injustice in America’s Largest Criminal Court.

Still, Van Cleve said unsympathetic details about a victim, especially when that impression is rooted in racism or contempt for drug addiction, shouldn’t derail police accountability.

“No one is above the law and no one deserves a death sentence without going to court,” she said. “It’s a type of policing that needs to end in America whether the victim is sympathetic or not.”

Murders that fueled the Black Lives Matter movement

What started as a hashtag has grown into a global effort to tackle racism in the police © AFP via Getty Images

Feb. 26, 2012

A black teenager, Trayvon Martin, was shot and killed in Sanford, Fla., On his way home from a convenience store. Neighborhood Watch Captain George Zimmerman said he acted in self-defense. A month later, President Barack Obama called for a full investigation, adding that “if I had a son he would look like Trayvon”.

July 13, 2013

Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman murder and manslaughter. Activist Alicia Garza writes a Facebook post containing the phrase “black lives matter.” Garza and activists Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi turned the phrase into a social media hashtag, which evolves into the name of the burgeoning movement.

July 17, 2014

New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo has placed Eric Garner in a strangulation, a prohibited position of restraint. Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe,” filmed by a spectator, become a rallying cry for the organizers of Black Lives Matter. Pantaleo has not been charged with a felony.

August 9, 2014

In Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed teenager Michael Brown following an altercation, claiming he feared for his life. The shooting sparked weeks of unrest, with peaceful protests sometimes accompanied by arson and looting, as police used tear gas and rubber bullets on crowds. Protesters took to the streets again in November, when a grand jury ruled that no charges would be laid against Wilson. The US Department of Justice later found a pattern of discrimination against African Americans by the Ferguson police.

October 20, 2014

Police officer Jason Van Dyke has shot dead Chicago teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times. The murder was filmed, which sparked protests when, more than a year later, a court forced Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s police department to publish the images. In 2018, a Chicago jury found Van Dyke guilty of second degree murder – the city’s first officer convicted of murder on duty for decades. He was then sentenced to almost seven years in prison.

July 6, 2016

In the suburbs of Minneapolis, police officer Jeronimo Yanez shot and killed Philando Castile during a traffic stop. A jury acquitted Yanez of second degree manslaughter and two counts of dangerous discharging from a firearm 11 months later.

March 13, 2020

Police officers in Louisville, Ky., Shot dead Breonna Taylor at her home after executing a “no knocking” search warrant. The city paid $ 12 million to settle a lawsuit for his death. Detective Brett Hankison, who shot in various apartments, is the only officer to face criminal charges in connection with his death – three counts of gratuitous endangerment.

May 25, 2020

Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin knelt around George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, while three officers accompanying him did not intervene. After a viewer posted the video online, the city erupted into protests and riots, which have spread around the world.

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