Derek Chauvin has been convicted of murder for killing George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for more than nine minutes, a crime that prompted waves of protests in support of racial justice in the US and across the world.
The jury swiftly and unanimously convicted Chauvin of all the charges he faced – second- and third-degree murder, and manslaughter – after concluding that the white former Minneapolis police officer killed the 46-year-old Black man in May through a criminal assault, by pinning him to the ground so he could not breathe.
Huge cheers immediately went up among a crowd of several hundred people outside the heavily fortified courthouse with people chanting “All three counts” and “Whose victory? Our victory!”
“Don’t let anyone tell you protest doesn’t work,” a man told the crowd through a bullhorn.
Floyd’s brother, Philonise, was the only family member in court. He sat praying in the minutes before the verdict and was visibly shaking as it was announced. As the guilty verdicts were proclaimed, he closed his eyes and nodded his head repeatedly.
“I was just praying they would find him guilty. As an African American, we usually never get justice,” he said immediately afterwards.
Benjamin Crump, a lawyer for the Floyd family, said in a statement: “Justice for Black America is justice for all of America. This case is a turning point in American history for accountability of law enforcement and sends a clear message we hope is heard clearly in every city and every state.”
President Joe Biden, Vice-President Kamala Harris and Jill Biden, the first lady, called members of the Floyd family moments after the verdict, according to video posted by Crump. Biden told the family: “Nothing is going to make it all better, but at least now there is some justice.” He added: “We’re all so relieved.”
At George Floyd Square, the makeshift memorial that has grown up in the street where Chauvin killed him, Mileesha Smith welcomed the verdicts.
“This is just the beginning. God didn’t let him die in vain. We need the change and we got it,” she said. “It’s bigger than the verdict. What we’ve been fighting for this entire time. You’re telling us that we are right.”
The convictions sent a wave of relief across large parts of a city that was badly hit by riots and looting in the days after Floyd’s death alongside peaceful protests. Hundreds of national guard troops had been deployed in preparation for an acquittal.
However, a fatal police shooting in Ohio of a 15-year-old girl, which took place just moments before the verdict was read, unleashed a sense of fury and frustration among protesters who gathered at the scene.
“We don’t get to celebrate nothing,” said one protester, KC Taynor, according to the Columbus Dispatch. “In the end, you know what, you can’t be Black.”
Chauvin, who showed little emotion as the verdicts were read, was immediately taken into custody to await sentencing. He faces up to 40 years in prison but is likely to receive a shorter sentence, according to legal guidelines.
Minnesota’s attorney general, Keith Ellison, welcomed the verdicts. “I would not call today’s verdict justice, however, because justice implies true restoration, but it is accountability which is the first step towards justice,” he said. “This verdict reminds us that we must make enduring enduring, systemic, societal change.”
The conviction does not put an end to the highly charged case, which reinvigorated the Black Lives Matter movement, as three other officers face trial later this year accused of aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter.
The speed of the verdicts, on just the second day of deliberation, suggests that the video footage of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck – which sparked the protests that swept the US – was decisive in persuading the jurors a murder had been committed.
But many activists remain sceptical about the significance of Chauvin’s prosecution, in part because the case was built around accusing the officer of failing to follow procedure and training, rather than examining the fundamental issues around policing in the US, including the use of force.
Joe Biden, in an address to the nation, praised the verdict but noted how difficult it is to ensure justice is served.
“This can be a giant step forward in the march towards justice in America. But let’s also be clear: such a verdict is also much too rare,” he said. “It seems like it took a unique and extraordinary convergence of factors. A brave young woman with a smartphone camera. A crowd that was traumatised. Traumatised witnesses. A murder that lasts almost ten minutes in broad daylight. Officers standing up and testifying against a fellow officer instead of just closing ranks.”
Biden said all of those factors and more were required for Chauvin to be brought to justice.
“For so many it feels like it took all of that for the judicial system to deliver just basic accountability,” he said.
The second-degree murder charge required the jury to find that Chauvin committed a crime by kneeling on Floyd’s neck, which in turn led to his death.
The prosecution put a persuasive case to the jury as a string of witnesses – including Chauvin’s former police colleagues, medical experts and bystanders – built a picture of an officer who exceeded his authority and training in pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds.
Medical specialists described how the combined weight of Chauvin and two other police officers pinning Floyd to the street in a prone position would have had the effect of “grinding and crushing him until the very breath, the very life, was squeezed out of him”.
A pulmonologist, Dr Martin Tobin, gave graphic testimony about Floyd’s desperate struggle to breathe as the position he was held in, pinned between police officers and the street with his cuffed hands pushed into his chest, meant he could barely use one of his lungs at all.
“It’s like the left side is in a vice. It’s being pushed in from the street at the bottom and the way the handcuffs are manipulated … totally interfere with central features of how we breathe,” he said.
The doctor told the jury that for nearly five minutes under Chauvin’s knee Floyd was still speaking which shows “that his oxygen levels were enough to keep his brain alive”.
After that there is evidence of brain damage. The doctor said Floyd’s leg can be seen kicking out which is a sign of a myotonic seizure caused by lack of oxygen.
Tobin said that when Floyd lost consciousness the level of oxygen in his lungs was well below half the normal amount.
The defence attempted to claim Chauvin was following his training, but in convicting him of second-degree murder the jury rejected the assertion that the former police officer was permitted to put his knee on the victim’s neck for an extended period of time.
The defence also attempted to claim that Chauvin’s actions had nothing to do with Floyd’s death, and that he died from a cardiac arrest caused by an enlarged and diseased heart, and exacerbated by drug use.
But that did not wash with the jury, perhaps because the excruciating video of Floyd’s suffering revealed an officer who showed cavalier indifference as he defied calls from bystanders and even one of his fellow officers to remove his knee and help the detained man.
Prosecution experts said that although Floyd had heart problems, he would not have died if it had not been for the police cutting off his oxygen supply.
Chauvin is expected to appeal, although he will face an uphill struggle to get the verdicts overturned, given that murder convictions are overwhelmingly upheld. The grounds for appeal could include that the convicted former police officer did not get a fair trial because of publicity around the case.
His lawyer, Eric Nelson, raised the issue at the end of the trial, telling the judge that the jury should have been sequestered throughout the whole trial, not just while it considered the verdict. Nelson also raised concerns that protests over the recent police killing of Daunte Wright, just 10 miles from the trial, may have influenced the jury.
Nelson also sought a mistrial over comments by a member of Congress, Maxine Walters, who called for protesters to “get more confrontational” if Chauvin were acquitted. The judge, Peter Cahill, refused to motion but criticised Walters and said she may have provided grounds for appeal.
“I’ll give you that Congresswoman Waters may have given you something on appeal that may result in this whole trial being overturned,” he said.