Derek Chauvin has been convicted of two counts of murder and one count of manslaughter in the death of George Floyd, concluding a trial that drew intense national interest and amplified concerns over the disparate ways police treat Americans of colour.
The former Minneapolis officer, who is white, could face decades in prison. He was taken into custody following the reading of the verdict Tuesday afternoon.
Sentencing will take place in about eight weeks, Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill said.
The 12 jurors reached their verdict after roughly 10 hours of deliberation that began Monday, finding Chauvin guilty of third-degree murder, second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Chauvin was one of three officers who pinned down Floyd, a Black Minnesotan, for 9 minutes and 29 seconds last spring as Floyd repeatedly said he couldn’t breathe. Yet Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck the entire time.
Floyd’s death sparked international racial justice protests in his name.
“George Floyd mattered,” Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said during a press conference after the verdict was announced. “He was loved by his family and his friends ... But that isn’t why he mattered. He mattered because he was a human being. And there is no way we can turn away from that reality.”
Philonise Floyd, one of George Floyd’s brothers, also spoke to praise the verdict and acknowledge other victims of police brutality.
“We have to always understand that we have to march. We will have to do this for life,” he said. “I’m not just fighting for George anymore. I’m fighting for everybody around this world.”
Over three weeks of testimony, prosecutors argued that Chauvin’s method of restraint had hindered Floyd’s ability to breathe as he was pressed facedown on the street outside a convenience store called Cup Foods. A small group of bystanders ― several of them minors at the time ― took the stand to explain why they were so concerned for Floyd’s safety as they witnessed him fighting to breathe underneath Chauvin.
Testimony from his loved ones helped to illustrate the way Floyd’s life and struggles mirrored those faced by many Americans: He had been grappling with addiction for years after initially receiving an opioid prescription for pain. He had recently lost his job due to the coronavirus pandemic, and tested positive the virus in early April. He was still grieving for his mother.
“On May 25, 2020, George Floyd died facedown on the pavement right on 38th and Chicago in Minneapolis,” prosecutor Steve Schleicher said in his closing arguments. “Nine minutes and 29 seconds. During this time, George Floyd struggled, desperate to breathe, to make enough room in his chest to breathe. But the force was too much. He was trapped.”
“Facing George Floyd that day did not require one ounce of courage, and none was shown on that day,” he told the jury. “All that was required was a little compassion, and none was shown on that day. ... This wasn’t policing. This was murder.”
Throughout the trial, defence attorney Eric Nelson worked to sow reasonable doubt among jurors, trying to convince them that Floyd’s preexisting health conditions mattered more to the final outcome than Chauvin’s actions. The officers, Nelson suggested, were simply following police training and doing their best to make decisions under pressure while facing a possible threat from the small group of onlookers, several of whom were filming the incident on their phones. Nelson used the drugs in Floyd’s system and his documented heart disease to substantiate the argument.
Anticipating the defence’s focus on Floyd’s health, prosecutors were aided by several medical experts who said Floyd died of asphyxia, a common term for a lack of oxygen. They dismissed claims that drugs or underlying health issues played major roles in his death.
Dr Martin Tobin, a top pulmonologist who works for a Chicago hospital, spent hours on the stand explaining with the help of slides, graphs and 3-D renderings how Floyd’s positioning made it difficult ― and then impossible ― for him to breathe. Jurors followed along as Tobin showed how various parts of Floyd’s anatomy were impacted, encouraging them to feel corresponding parts of their own necks.
Chauvin’s position over Floyd made it so his left side was “in a vise”.
“A healthy person subjected to what Mr Floyd was subjected to would have died as a result of what he was subjected to,” Tobin testified.
Several of Chauvin’s former colleagues provided criticism of his actions, breaking the so-called “blue wall of silence”. Most notably, Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo testified that Chauvin “absolutely” violated the department’s use-of-force policy.
Chauvin, however, chose not to testify, invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination on the final day of the evidentiary portion of the trial.
Experts called by the defense pointed to the unpredictable nature of police work and suggested the unusually large amount of video evidence still might not have told the whole story at the scene.
Police had been called to Cup Foods after a young cashier told his boss that he suspected Floyd had used a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes. The store had a policy that if a cashier accepted a fake bill, the amount would taken from their own wages. The cashier, Christopher Martin, 19, testified about the guilt he felt over Floyd’s death.
“If I would have just not taken the bill, this could have been avoided,” Martin said in court.
Several of the state’s first few witnesses similarly felt emotional over the incident. Darnella Frazier, 18, the girl who filmed the video of Floyd’s arrest that went viral in the aftermath, said Floyd appeared “terrified”.
“When I look at George Floyd, I look at my dad,” Frazier testified. “I look at my brothers. I look at my cousins. I look at my uncles. Because they are all Black. ... And I look at how that could have been one of them.”
Frazier’s 9-year-old cousin who was with her at the time also spoke up in court.
Outside the courtroom were scenes of resistance: protesters carrying Black Lives Matter signs and flags rallied, at one point observing 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence led by the Rev Al Sharpton ― the amount of time it was initially reported that Chauvin had knelt on top of Floyd. (The trial subsequently revealed the restraint to have lasted nearly 10 minutes.)
The mood shifted toward urgency by the end of the trial, after police in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota ― a half-hour drive north of Cup Foods ― killed a Black man on April 11. Daunte Wright, 20, was shot by a veteran officer who says she mistook her firearm for a stun gun.
“This has to end,” Ellison said on Tuesday. “We need true justice. That’s not one case ― that is a social transformation that says nobody’s beneath the law and nobody’s above it. This verdict reminds us that we must make enduring systemic societal change.”
Wright’s mother, Katie Wright, joined Floyd’s family in front of the Minneapolis courthouse to give a heart-wrenching press conference about her son.
To the south, in Chicago, a police accountability group released body camera video on April 15 showing the shocking death of 13-year-old Adam Toledo, who had empty hands raised when an officer shot and killed him.
Chauvin’s conviction will undoubtedly raise questions in police departments across the country about use-of-force policies and how officers’ actions will be evaluated.
“Police departments need to be reexamining their practices,” Barbara McQuade, University of Michigan law professor and a former US attorney, told HuffPost. The Chauvin case may “send a message”, she said, “that police officers will “no longer get the benefit of the doubt from a jury the way maybe you did 10 or 20 years ago”.
“And so you need to conform your behavior to a higher standard, because if you don’t, you will be held accountable,” McQuade said.
Hundreds of people gathered outside the Hennepin County Government Center, where the trial had unfolded in an 18th-story courtroom, to listen to the verdicts being read on Tuesday. Shouts of relief and joy erupted from the crowd when the guilty decisions were announced.
Under Minnesota law, second-degree murder carries a maximum sentence of 40 years in prison, third-degree murder carries a maximum of 25 years and second-degree manslaughter carries a maximum of 10 years. In this case, because the charges are for the same crime, it’s likely the years would be served concurrently, resulting in a potential maximum sentence for Chauvin of 40 years behind bars.