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Trial Underway in Death of George Floyd: Here's What You Should Know

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 03: Demonstrators march away from the White House during a peaceful protest against police brutality and the death of George Floyd, on June 3, 2020 in Washington, DC. Protests in cities throughout the country have been held after the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25.  (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
By Andrew Leonatti on March 15, 2021 1:16 PM

It's been nearly 10 months since George Floyd died under the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Floyd's death sparked an ongoing reckoning with America's commitment to racial justice and the treatment of people of color by the police.

Jury selection is now underway in the murder trial of Chauvin, in what will surely be one of the most closely watched criminal cases in recent memory. Here is what you need to know as the start of opening arguments inches closer.

What Is Chauvin on Trial For?

Chauvin is on trial in a Hennepin County, Minnesota, courtroom for the charges below. A jury could find Chauvin guilty of all, some, or none of the charges.

Second-Degree Unintentional Murder

The most serious of the charges, prosecutors are alleging that Chauvin killed Floyd by holding his knee on his neck for an unreasonable amount of time. Because this is an "unintentional" murder charge, prosecutors do not have to prove that Chauvin intended or wanted to kill Floyd, only that his restraint of Floyd caused his death.

According to Minnesota sentencing guidelines, a conviction on this charge could lead to a 10- to 15-year prison sentence.

Third-Degree Murder

This is perhaps the most controversial of the charges that Chauvin faces. Prosecutors initially charged Chauvin with this count, but Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill threw it out last fall.

In Minnesota, third-degree murder means that someone caused the death of another "by perpetuating an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind, without regard for human life." In throwing the charge out, Cahill argued that Chauvin's actions did not pose a threat to "others."

Earlier this month, however, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that Cahill improperly threw the charge out. In a ruling upholding the previous third-degree murder conviction of another Minneapolis police officer (Mohamed Noor), the Court of Appeals found that third-degree murder can apply to a single person. Cahill reinstated the third-degree murder count last week. A conviction on this count could also mean a 10- to 15-year prison sentence.

The Minnesota Supreme Court will review Noor's conviction in June. Should the court toss his conviction out, and Chauvin is convicted of third-degree murder in his trial, his conviction could ultimately be overturned on appeal as well.

Second-Degree Manslaughter

This charge implies that Chauvin was "culpably negligent" in causing Floyd's death in that restraining Floyd with the knee on his neck was an "unreasonable risk." Prosecutors will not have to prove that Chauvin's restraint was the cause of Floyd's death, only that Floyd would still be alive were it not for Chauvin's actions.

What Charges Are the Other Officers Facing?

Minneapolis police officers J. Alexander Keung, Thomas Lane, and Tou Thao are all charged with aiding and abetting second-degree unintentional murder and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter. They will go on trial in August. If the jury acquits Chauvin on all counts, it will be tough for prosecutors to convict these three officers, who helped restrain Floyd.

What Will the Defense Argue?

In Chauvin's case, much of the defense is likely to rest on two different factors. The first will be the medical examiner's report, which ruled Floyd's death a homicide but also noted the presence of drugs in his system and that Floyd had heart disease. That means Chauvin's defense may argue that Floyd would have died anyway, regardless of Chauvin's knee.

The other line of defense will likely rely on arguing that Chauvin acted legally and reasonably under Minnesota's use-of-force laws for police to protect himself, fellow officers, and bystanders.

In their trial, the other three officers will likely try to argue that Chauvin was the senior officer at the scene and they were following his lead.

Civil Settlement

Late last week, the Minneapolis City Council approved a $27-million settlement with Floyd's family. That the city would ultimately reach a settlement with Floyd's family was not in doubt, however, the timing of the announcement is already complicating the trial.

As jury selection resumed this week, Chauvin's defense attorney, Eric Nelson, asked the court for a delay, arguing that the news of the settlement would affect the ability of jurors to remain neutral. Nelson also asked to move the trial out of Hennepin County. Cahill declined to grant a delay but said that he would likely re-question the jurors who were already seated. Cahill could still grant a motion to move the trial, which would mean further delays.

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