Closing arguments and jury deliberations are set to start this week in Derek Chauvin’s murder trial.
Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, is on trial for second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the May 25, 2020, arrest death of George Floyd. According to prosecutors, Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds while Floyd pleaded that he could not breathe.
Floyd was arrested for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes at the Cup Foods store located at 38th Street and Chicago Avenue. Floyd was pronounced dead that night, and bystander video footage of the incident went viral, sparking protests, riots and a racial reckoning across the U.S.
During almost three weeks of testimony, the jury has heard from 45 witnesses: 38 from the prosecution and seven from the defense. Both sides have rested their case.
On Thursday, Chauvin announced that he would invoke his Fifth Amendment privilege not to testify. Legal experts say Chauvin likely elected not to testify to avoid being cross-examined by the prosecution.
Here’s what to expect this week as the trial comes to a close:
Closing arguments will begin at 9 a.m. Monday. This is the last opportunity attorneys have to make an impression on the jury. The prosecution, like in opening statements and in presenting their case, will go first.
Joseph Daly, emeritus professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, said closing arguments are often the most theatrical and dramatic part of a trial.
“It will remind you of watching a trial in a movie or on television,” Daly said. “It’s the culminating event.”
The prosecution will go over the evidence and testimony the jury has heard and say how it proves their case. Prosecutor Steve Schleicher will deliver the prosecution’s closing argument.
Eric Nelson, Chauvin’s attorney, has the harder job, according to legal experts. Nelson will say there is reasonable doubt of Chauvin not being guilty and that the state has not met the burden of proof.
After the defense gives their closing argument, the prosecution will give a rebuttal argument. Prosecutor Jerry Blackwell will deliver the rebuttal.
Daly said he expects the prosecution to play Darnella Frazier’s bystander video of Floyd’s arrest, as they did during their opening statements and during testimony.
“That video is probably the single strongest piece of evidence in the state’s case,” said Richard Frase, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School in Minneapolis.
It’s unclear how long closing arguments will last. Mark Osler, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis, said they likely will wrap up by Monday afternoon.
Jury instructions and deliberations
Once closing arguments conclude, Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill will dismiss the two alternate jurors and read the jury instructions on the law and the charges. The final jury instructions have not yet been released to the public.
The 12-member jury will be sequestered and stay in a hotel overnight until they reach a verdict.
The jury will then be given a verdict form they will have to fill out for each of the charges. The jury could find Chauvin guilty of all, some or none of the charges.
Osler said one of the first things the jury will do is take a “straw poll” on whether Chauvin is guilty or not guilty. If that vote is unanimous, the verdict will be announced quickly. If not, it could be drawn out over days or longer until they reach a unanimous decision.
The main question the jury will have to answer is if Chauvin caused Floyd’s death or his actions were substantial in causing his death, Osler said.
“That is an element of all three charges,” Osler said.
To prove second-degree murder, the prosecution has to prove Chauvin committed an underlying felony, in this case third-degree assault, which was a substantial factor in Floyd’s death.
For third-degree murder, the prosecution must prove Chauvin acted recklessly, causing the death of Floyd by “perpetrating an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind, without regard for human life,” according to the Minnesota statute.
The second-degree manslaughter charge requires the prosecution to show Chauvin was negligent, creating “an unreasonable risk, and consciously takes chances of causing death or great bodily harm,” the Minnesota statute says.
Daly said the jurors may go back and forth on whether the testimony of Dr. Martin Tobin or Dr. David Fowler was more credible in regard to what caused Floyd’s death.
Daly emphasized that it only takes one juror to stray the jury from a unanimous decision, which would result in a hung jury and a mistrial.
If the jurors have questions about the law or evidence, they can ask them to Cahill over Zoom. The jury also will be given a laptop and monitor with all evidence from the trial on it to refer to while they deliberate.
Once the jury finishes deliberating, the next step will be announcing the verdict.
The state has motioned to seek an aggravated sentence against Chauvin. Therefore if the jury finds him guilty, their job won’t stop there.
Osler said that due to the state’s request, the jury will have to decide whether there are aggravating factors. The jury would have to answer questions about certain facts of the case to determine if an aggravated sentence is appropriate.
If Chauvin is convicted, Cahill could have him arrested immediately and taken into custody pending his sentencing, Daly said. Chauvin has been released on bond since last October.
If Chauvin is convicted of multiple charges, he will only be sentenced for the highest charge. Under Minnesota sentencing guidelines, Chauvin would be sentenced to 12.5 years in prison for second- or third-degree murder and four years in prison for second-degree manslaughter.
The third-degree murder charge carries some risk, legal experts say. Mohamed Noor, another former Minneapolis police officer, was convicted of third-degree murder and manslaughter for the death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond.
Noor petitioned his third-degree murder conviction to the Minnesota Supreme Court, arguing that because his actions were only directed at Damond, he can’t be convicted of the charge. The Minnesota Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments for Noor’s case, which will take place later this year.
If Noor’s conviction is overturned and Chauvin in convicted of third-degree murder, Chauvin’s conviction could also be overturned for that charge, legal experts say.
The three other former Minneapolis officers charged in Floyd’s death, Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao, will face a separate trial that is currently scheduled to begin on Aug. 23.