The trial of Derek Chauvin: Everything you need to know

It is a chance to prove the justice system can work

Graphic Joey Bruce

The trial of Derek Chauvin has started and if you have not been keeping up with the case, here is everything you need to know before you start watching.

Last June, the former Minneapolis police officer was officially charged with the murder and manslaughter of George Floyd.

Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, died after Chauvin kneeled on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds.

For myself and many others, this left us wondering how many more racialized people will die at the hands of the police until justice can be served?

His death was reported internationally and became a symbol for the fight against police brutality and racial injustices.

The city of Minneapolis agreed on March 11 to pay Floyd’s family $27 million USD in a civil lawsuit.

The murder trial started on March 9 and is still in its first stage of jury selection.

Here’s what you need to know.

Who are the key players?

Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill will be overseeing the murder trial of Derek Chauvin. He started with the county’s public defender office in 1984 and was appointed in 2007. He is described as being “respected” and having “a reputation as a no-nonsense, fair judge,” according to CBS Minnesota.

So far, Judge Cahill has held firm on his decisions such as allowing video cameras at the trial, starting the trial in March despite the pandemic and refusing the defense’s demand to move the trial outside of Hennepin county.

Attorney General Keith Ellison, the first African-American elected attorney general, will be taking the lead on this case along with a team of prosecutors with impressive resumes such as Matthew Frank, Steven Schleicher and Jerry Blackwell. The latter won a pro bono case last year for the posthumous pardon of Max Mason who was wrongfully convicted of raping a white woman which led to lynching.

On the defense side, Chauvin’s attorney Eric Nelson has exclusively practiced criminal defense in his career. Nelson was involved in the high-profile case of Amy Senser, who was charged with vehicular homicide in 2011 after a hit-and-run. Nelson often represents police officers in Minnesota.

As for the jury, there were 13 selected as of Friday. 

Two jurors were dropped on March 17 because the settlement that was awarded to Floyd’s family in civil court affected their impartiality. Both jurors confirmed having seen the extensive news coverage of the settlement and admitted having a hard time being impartial.

This dismissal confirms the rumors about the impact the settlement could have on the pool of jury and the trial. However, Judge Cahill denied the defense’s request to move or postpone the trial last Friday.

Jury selection is based on previous knowledge of the case, whether the potential juror has seen it on the news and their answers to a 13-page questionnaire.

According to this questionnaire, out of the 13 members of the jury selected so far, five identify as men and eight as women. Seven jurors identify as white, four as Black and two as multiracial.

Although the final selection was set to include a total of 14 people—12 jurors and two alternates—Judge Cahill stated last Friday that they would try to pick at least two more jurors to make sure there are 14 come March 29.

This first stage should be complete by the end of the week as opening statements are set to start March 29.

What are the charges and potential sentences?

Chauvin was arrested on May 29, four days after the murder, with already 18 complaints on his official record.

What strikes me in this case, is how little evidence police needed to confront, arrest and then kill a Black man, but how much more evidence the justice system has against the officers, yet still not act upon it quicker.
Chauvin was already facing charges of second-degree manslaughter and second-degree murder when Judge Cahill granted the prosecutor’s request to add a third-degree murder charge March 11.

One thing we know, is that this trial will be a test of the system and a chance to prove if it can actually work.

If convicted of second-degree murder, Chauvin will face 11 to 15 years in prison, with a maximum penalty of up to 40 years. The maximum penalty for the added third-degree murder charge is 25 years.

If found guilty, this verdict will mean more than just the conviction of one police officer for the death of one black man.

What is the defense’s strategy?

Hennepin county’s medical examiner Andrew Baker has ruled Floyd’s death as a homicide with many contributing factors such as Chauvin’s knee restraint, the presence of drugs in Floyd’s system and his underlying health conditions.

The district attorney’s charging documents state the following: “The combined effects of Mr. Floyd being restrained by the police, his underlying health conditions and any potential intoxicants in his system likely contributed to his death.”

Seven experts in toxicology, cardiology and illegal drug use, consulted by The Washington Post, disagree with the idea that the presence of drugs or underlying health conditions had anything to do with Floyd’s death.

However, it is most likely that Defense Attorney Nelson will use those factors in his defense and it is predicted that his cross-examination of Dr. Baker will be a critical point of the defense.

This narrative is nothing new: drug use to justify police brutality has a long history. Someone’s involvement with drugs is often used in court to exonerate violent actions by police.

The riots we saw last June echoed the 1992 LA riots that were sparked after the acquittal of four LAPD officers with the assistance of the “drug fiend” defense for the beating of Rodney King, a black taxi driver.

This myth of the foreign “drug fiend” is the key to many more police killings in the US, as it was reported back in 2018 that they kill an average of three people a day. This same report stated that “African-American men are 3.16 times as likely as white men to be killed by a police officer in the U.S.”

The majority of officers do not get convicted of those killings, which is what makes this trial ever so important.

When the case was building against him, Chauvin was also quick to blame Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng, the two other officers who arrived first on the scene. According to Chauvin, they “failed to de-escalate a confrontation that began when they tried to arrest Floyd for attempting to use a counterfeit $20 bill.”

Both Lane and Kueng are facing charges of aiding and abetting second-degree murder and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter.

They are set to be tried together this summer.

How long will the trial last?

Chauvin’s trial will be unusual as it will be livestreamed from Minneapolis and attendance will be limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The public interest in this case will also make it one of the most high-profile trials in recent history.

Prosecutors and the defense lawyer have started the jury selection March 9 and this first part of the trial is expected to last another week as two more jurors still need to be seated. Jury selection is the only part of the trial that is not available to stream live.

Legal scholars and lawyers expect the trial to last about two months.

Will justice be served?

As Floyd’s family attorney Ben Crump said after the settlement of the civil lawsuit, “it’s going to be a long journey to justice.”

Even though the civil case has nothing to do with the trial, some say the settlement of $27 million USD could make it hard to seat an impartial jury, which we saw March 17th when Judge Cahill dropped two jurors because of it.

However, a win in civil court for the Floyd family does not mean we can expect a win from the prosecutors in Chauvin’s murder trial.

One thing we know, is that this trial will be a test of the system and a chance to prove it can actually work.
"The one thing we know as Black people... is there is no guarantee that a police officer will be convicted for killing a Black person unjustly in our country," Crump said. "That's what history has taught us."