On 21 April, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murdering civilian George Floyd on 25 May 2020 during his arrest for allegedly using a fake 20$ bill. The verdict has spurred celebrations around the USA, as many see it as a landmark case in the fight against institutional racism.
After a three-week trial, the jury took 10 hours to deliberate and find Derek Chauvin guilty on all counts. His most serious conviction, second-degree murder, carries a maximum prison sentence of 40 years in Minnesota. He was also sentenced for third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
The trial had 45 witnesses and focused on two key questions: what caused Floyd’s death, and whether officer Chauvin’s use of force was reasonable.
One crucial evidence in the trial is believed to be a video of the incident filmed by passerby Darnella Frazier. She filmed officer Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, a video that went viral after she uploaded it on Facebook.
The video contradicted the original account of events by the police officers, who only said that they responded to a “forgery in progress” involving a suspect who “appeared to be under the influence”, and who died because he was “suffering medical distress”.
Defense lawyer, Eric Nelson, tried to convince the jury that Mr Floyd did not die of asphyxiation only. He pointed to the fact that Mr Floyd had drugs in his system at the time of the arrest and suffered from underlying health issues.
Defence witness, Dr David Fowler, said that the fact that he was lying on the floor next to the car exhaust was also a contributing factor.
In his closing argument, Nelson repeatedly called Chavin “a reasonable police officer”, and said that he was following his training in a situation of high distress caused by the bystanders. He also said that Chauvin saw how two officers could not get Mr Floyd inside the car so additional use of force was needed.
Dr Martin Tobin testified for the prosecutor and said that “Mr Floyd died from a low level of oxygen” because he was handcuffed in the prone position, and had knees pressing both his neck and back.
Another witness for the prosecution was cardiology expert Dr. Jonathan Rich, who said: “After reviewing all the facts and evidence of the case, I can state with a high degree of medical certainty that George Floyd did not die from a primary cardiac event, and he did not die from a drug overdose.”
Steve Schleicher, who gave closing arguments for the prosecution, urged the jurors to “believe [their] eyes”. He said that Chauvin “had to know” after hearing Floyd cry over and over that he could not breathe.
Mr Chauvin, who showed little emotions when the judge read the jury’s sentence, is the first white police officer to be convicted of murdering a black civilian in Minnesota. He is expected to file an appeal arguing that the jury was prejudiced by the media coverage of the incident and the ongoing protests.
George Floyd’s killing resulted in the largest civil protest in the US in decades, and has mobilized people around the globe. Protesters see similarities between Floyd’s case and others in which white police officers use excessive force against black individuals with fatal consequences.
In 2014, African-American Eric Garner died of asphyxiation while police officer Daniel Pantaleo was arresting him. His last words -and Floyd’s- were “I can’t breath”; a sentence that has now become a slogan for the Black Lives Matter movement. Pantaleo lost his job but was not indicted with murder.
During Chauvin’s trial, black teenager Daunte Wright died in Minnesota after a police officer fired her gun instead of her taser when he was stopped for a traffic violation.
The Justice Department announced on 21 April that it is opening an investigation into both the City of Minneapolis and the Minneapolis Police Department and its use of force.
Professor of Law at Harvard School, Ronald Sullivan, told Al Jazeera during the live broadcast of the trial that it is “extraordinarily rare” for a white man to be held accountable for the death of a black man during a police arrest. He said the US is “like the Wild West” for black males.
Image Credit: Chad Davis