Doubt is at the heart of every criminal defense: Beyond a reasonable doubt, did Derek Chauvin cause the death of George Floyd, and if so, what was the degree of his intent? Eric Nelson, a defense attorney for the former Minneapolis police officer, hammered this question home to the jury in closing arguments Monday. While the jurors might have thought the prosecution’s evidence was convincing, that wasn’t enough. It had to be convincing beyond a reasonable doubt on every count Chauvin faced: unintentional murder in the second degree, third-degree murder showing a “depraved mind,” and “culpable negligence” manslaughter.
On Tuesday, Chauvin’s defense resoundingly failed in that effort. After a remarkably quick deliberation of the charges starting late Monday, jurors found him guilty on all three charges, indicating that the tactics – traditional and non- – that the defense employed failed to do the job.
The defense tried to cloud the facts of the case by blaming the victim and the bystanders for the actions of Chauvin, in which he kept his knee planted on Floyd’s neck for some 9 minutes leading up to his death. The lawyer then brought in rebuttal medical testimony in an attempt to prove Chauvin’s acts were not a substantial cause of Floyd’s death. But these efforts clearly weren’t very effective.
Smearing the reputation of the alleged victim, in this case Floyd, is a classic defense strategy. Though it should be irrelevant to innocence or guilt, in practice a victim’s actions and reputation can affect jurors’ perceptions of what occurred. Their interpretations may depend on how well the opposing attorneys can show the victim was a person deserving respect and sympathy — and the prosecution seems to have done so here. Prosecutors took great care to call witnesses who testified about Floyd’s family life — he was close with his mother and was calling for her as he died — and didn’t deny his drug addiction but rather painted it as a very sad fact of his life.
Blaming the bystanders for pressuring the alleged perpetrator, in this case implying that Chauvin was pushed to take actions he wouldn’t have otherwise, was more creative. A variation of “blaming the victim,” Nelson aimed to show it was the urgency of avoiding the restive crowd, not Chauvin’s “depraved mind,” that caused him to subdue Floyd so forcefully. However, the prosecution effectively countered by having the sympathetic bystanders testify and showing pictures of them looking distressed rather than threatening at the scene of the encounter.
On the other hand, getting a medical professional to contradict the findings of the prosecution’s professionals —the prosecution’s witnesses included the county coroner and another highly regarded expert on asphyxiation — is a typical move. Chauvin’s medical expert said it was Floyd’s drug use or a pre-existing heart condition rather than police force that killed him. But the operative legal issue that emerged is that the defendant Chauvin’s actions must be only a “substantial cause” of the death, not its sole cause. In the battle of the experts, the jury apparently remembered the many credible ones who said it was.
However, the defense was most likely to have planted some doubt in some jurors’ minds as to what Chauvin intended to do when he assisted in getting a large and agitated man, albeit one handcuffed from behind, into the squad car for transport to the police station. The top charge was called “felony murder” because it covers a situation in which a person intends to commit a felony and as a result another person dies; in other words, it wasn’t necessary to prove that Chauvin premeditated or even intended Floyd to die, just that he intended to assault him (the predicate felony) and the terrible outcome was his death.
It was quite possible the jurors would have regarded Chauvin as a law enforcement officer confronted with a difficult situation that he drastically and tragically mishandled, rather than having set out to assault Floyd. Such doubt as to Chauvin’s intent to assault the victim would have meant doubt as to whether he committed the underlying felony on which the murder charge rests. It was the place where the prosecution was most vulnerable.
Why was the case more unshakable on the lesser charges? Because proving third-degree murder, which means that a defendant committed an eminently dangerous act “evincing a depraved mind, without regard for human life,” didn’t require establishing what Chauvin’s intent was as he came into the situation. The prosecution only needed to prove that, once into the struggle with Floyd, he got angry enough that he had no regard for the human life beneath him. The prosecution repeatedly showed the picture of Chauvin with his hands placed insouciantly in his pockets as he pushed on Floyd’s neck. It would have been hard for even the most skeptical juror to conclude that Chauvin did not intend to cause Floyd’s death.
And for the least-severe charge of manslaughter, the prosecution didn’t need to prove that Chauvin intentionally killed Floyd but just that he displayed “culpable negligence whereby the person creates an unreasonable risk, and consciously takes chances causing death or great bodily harm to another.” Therefore, the jury unanimously concluded that Chauvin’s disregard for the policies and training in the Minneapolis Police Department — which he would have known well as an experienced officer and which his boss, the police chief, testified he violated — was negligence that made him criminally culpable in Floyd’s death.
Chauvin will now face sentencing, and the Minnesota sentencing guidelines require a person convicted of any of these charges to serve a prison term. The median imprisonment for second-degree murder is 30 years. But Cahill has indicated he will add time to the baseline term by pointing to an “aggravating factor” that allows him to increase the sentence — such as when a crime was committed before a child, as in this case.
How much time will Chauvin ultimately face for the crimes he committed? We’ll soon find out.