Prosecutors in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged with killing George Floyd, made a straightforward appeal to the jury during closing arguments: “Use your common sense. Believe your eyes. What you saw, you saw.”
Driving home that message — in essence, to trust in the video evidence that was the linchpin of the state’s case — was a winning strategy for prosecutors, who shut down the defense in the highly anticipated trial, legal analysts and policing experts said.
Chauvin, 45, was found guilty Tuesday of all the charges against him — second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter — which required the jury to unanimously agree that the force he used on Floyd, 46, while he was detained by police in May was unreasonable and reckless and that it caused his death. Video taken by bystanders showed Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes as Floyd repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe.”
“That video and the instruction to the jury to ‘believe your eyes’ was powerful and made up an overwhelming amount of evidence,” said Kalfani Ture, a former police officer who is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.
“The defense were lacking, and they were shredded by the prosecution,” he said.
Chauvin could face 75 years in prison during the sentencing phase in the next eight weeks.
At a news conference after the verdict was read, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison celebrated the outcome, saying the prosecution was “a team of all Michael Jordans.”
During the trial, Chauvin’s defense attorney, Eric Nelson, said Floyd’s cause of death was underlying heart issues and the fentanyl and methamphetamine that were in his system. Chauvin arrived at the scene with three other officers and acted as any reasonable officer would have, Nelson argued, and in trying to subdue Floyd he employed “an authorized use of force, as unattractive as it may be.”
But several officers, in a rare public rebuke of a fellow member of law enforcement, testified that they believed Chauvin had used excessive force.
“When Mr. Floyd was no longer responsive and even motionless, to continue to apply that level of force to a person proned out, handcuffed behind their back, that in no way, shape or form is anything that is by policy,” Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo testified. “It is not part of our training, and it is certainly not part of our ethics or values.”
Arradondo had fired Chauvin and the three other officers who were at the scene a day after the May 25 incident.
The video evidence of Floyd’s final moments, buttressed by experts’ and witnesses’ testimony for the prosecution, overwhelmingly supported a guilty verdict, said Valerie Hans, a law professor at Cornell University who studies the behavior of juries.
“The prosecution had a strong case, and they presented it well,” Hans said.
“The Chauvin trial was different from previous police use-of-force cases that also seemed strong in that multiple police officers testified persuasively that Chauvin’s conduct was unlawful,” she said. “Even Blue Lives Matter people had police testimony that could help them put this conduct in context.”
The trial unfolded over three weeks of testimony after months of racial justice protests over the deaths of Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement officers. In addition, the fatal shooting by police of a young Black man in Brooklyn Center, about 10 miles from where Chauvin was on trial, injected yet another layer of tension and anxiety to demands for police accountability.
But the national discourse over systemic racism that drove the nationwide protests were not a storyline in Chauvin’s trial.
In fact, prosecutors made a point not to cast aspersions on all law enforcement during closing arguments.
“This is not a prosecution of the police,” prosecutor Steven Schleicher said. Policing is “a most noble profession,” he said, and Chauvin’s actions were “not policing.”
Ture said it was important not to be heavy-handed about race and policing if the prosecution wanted to sway jurors, particularly those who might be supportive of police, to a guilty verdict.
“Their endgame is to get a conviction,” Ture said. “They’re not going to litigate race relations in America.”
Legal experts said it helped that the 12-member jury was diverse: four white women and two white men, three Black men and one Black woman, and two mixed-race women.
“That diversity added to the strength of the fact-finding and should add to the legitimacy of the verdict,” Hans said.
James E. Coleman Jr., a law professor at Duke University, said that while Nelson made some strong points, they were ultimately “out of sync” with the evidence, particularly the videos that were shown, and they are unlikely to have played well with a racially diverse jury in Minneapolis.
“In an all-white suburb, his argument may have resonated, where the jurors view the police as their friends,” he said.
Ture said the defense could have had stronger witnesses to rebut the prosecution, and he would have suggested having Chauvin himself testify after Floyd’s family members took the stand to humanize him to the jury.
“Yes, Chauvin would have opened himself up to cross-examination,” Ture said, “but the jury needed to hear something from this man to allow the defense at best to go to a hung jury. The silence was just as cold and callous as it was when Chauvin was silent and cold on the neck of George Floyd.”
The defense has already identified some of the issues it would raise in a potential appeal, including prosecutorial misconduct and the effect of publicity during the trial on the jurors.
Whether a motion to appeal would be effective remains to be seen.
“We don’t have any reason to think the jurors were not following the judge’s instructions to avoid the news,” said Hans, the Cornell professor.
Meanwhile, legal experts said, for Chauvin’s conviction to have meaning, discussions over policing in America must continue and officers must be rightfully held accountable in excessive force cases.
“Police officers are going to have to reject the argument of the defense unequivocally: This was not reasonable force, and any officer who does this should be punished as a criminal,” Coleman said. “Nothing short of conveying that message will restrain the public’s reaction to cases like this.”