OPINION: Can we predict if Derek Chauvin is guilty of George Floyd's murder?
Most may have seen gruesome footage presented in the trial of Derek Chauvin, a former police officer charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter. What are the prospects of jurors finding him guilty of these charges? From a legal perspective, there are conflicting issues.
According to the Minneapolis law, third-degree murder occurs when there is no intent or prior planning, commonly known as premeditated, as stated in the statute book example: "A typical use of third-degree murder charge would be used against the person who fired a gun into a crowd or drove through a crowded sidewalk."
“Whoever, without intent to effect the death of any person, causes the death of another by perpetrating an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind, without regard for human life, is guilty of murder in the third degree “
The charges also include, among other things, second-degree murder and manslaughter. In Minnesota law, the prosecutors would have to prove that he ought to have ascertained that he was inflicting pain that conceivably could cause someone to die thus, the risk was imminent and he acted unreasonably with the greatest negligence when carrying out his duties as a police officer.
In court proceedings since the trial began on Monday, prosecutors brought different witnesses, which among them were people who were the first responders to the Floyd's gruesome killing when officer Chauvin knelt on his neck.
Prosecutors decided to focus much on the emotional aspect of the murder itself when it occurred - most of their witnesses submitted how they felt about the situation rather than assisting them to prove how the charged officer might have been negligent. This is not entirely my analysis; this is to underscore the work that has been done so far.
The defence, on the other hand, seems to be submitting that Floyd might have died due to Chauvin kneeling or pinning him down but he died due to intoxication. It is also important to note that Floyd's death was not confirmed by a hospital. More experts would have to be called to explain whether there is a possibility that, had Floyd not been under the influence of drugs as it is been alleged, he would not have died, or under normal circumstances a sober person would not have died if someone was pressing them down for nine minutes.
So far, I don’t seem to fully understand the strategy that prosecutors are trying to use in light of the above charges. The shop clerk was called upon the stand and he confirmed that Floyd appeared to have been under the influence of drugs and his girlfriend acknowledged that at some point they struggled with opioid painkillers before his death. But she said Floyd had been clean for a while and a few weeks before his death he had relapsed. The defence contested her testimony by saying that “apparently Floyd during his arrest complained that his stomach hurt and had white foam around his mouth”. The defence further claimed that Floyd died due to overdose, which is a contributing factor to heart failure. In contrast, the state medical report never included drug overdose as one of the causes of death even though in the report it is said that Floyd was on opioids fentanyl and methamphetamine.
Often in criminal matters the defence would try to question the credibility, reliability and truthfulness of the witness called on the stand. This is to cast doubts in the jurors' minds so that an acquittal is secured. In this case, an off-duty firefighter was called but under their professional standards, although she was off duty and not in uniform, the credibility of that witness becomes difficult to prove and they should be considered as a mere bystander.
One of the unwritten rules that defence attorneys use is asking open-ended questions, most of these questions require one-word answers so that the witness is unable to explain the answers they use. But this should always be in line with cross-examination rules. Since the trial's start, its focus has been largely on the emotional aspect and the racial motivation associated with not only the criminal justice system in the United States but with police brutality.
The witness who took the stand when answering questions from the defence attorney had to point out that the defence was trying to portray him as an angry black man. From a transformative legal theory, this is a good point. There has been in the past an overrepresentation of black people in prisons due to centuries of pernicious laws and outright discrimination.
Under similar circumstances, jurors are always reluctant to find people guilty in all, no matter how emotional and sad the trial is. The closest precedent in the state of Minnesota will be that of the former officer Mohamed Noor, who shot in cold blood an Australian woman who called 911. This is a typical case where similar charges are presented. For shooting an unarmed woman, Noor explained in court that he was trying to save her husband's life. He was found guilty of the third-degree murder charge and manslaughter but not on second-degree murder.
In the case of Chauvin's murder trial, the prosecutors have a lot to prove in this case. It is still too early to predict a possible verdict but the evidence is overwhelming, considering the video exhibits. This begs the question: does Floyd's conduct have any material effect in this trial and would it justify his merciless killing? Could his alleged drug addiction be considered? Jurors bear a huge responsibility as people all around the world are calling for justice.
My observation is that the defence’s strategy sometimes does transcend into a presumption that Floyd is the one who is on trial. Criminal cases are very difficult to predict. This is a case that could bring justice to the African American community in the US who are often victims of police brutality and violence. We have also seen the rise of social movements calling for racial justice.
Chauvin’s supervisor acknowledged that there was no justification for keeping his knee on Floyd for nine minutes
“When Mr Floyd was no longer offering up any resistance to the officers, they could have ended their restraint “
This is very important for the prosecutors: any reasonable person should have known that this could kill somebody and he simply ignored the training guidelines provided to police officers.
We expect the trial to run for at least four weeks. It is still unclear if the jurors will be able to find Chauvin guilty. The evidence presented so far shows his unintentional wrongdoing, even when other officers tried to check if Floyd was still alive and Chauvin continued to suffocate him. This a case that people around the world are watching, with many expecting that those responsible for Floyd's death are held accountable and that it would be a message to other officers who are in similar situations.
Nkanyiso Ngqulunga is a legal researcher in different disciplines of the law. He is also a columnist and social justice activist. You can follow him on Twitter: @Nkanyiso_ngqulu.