Updated: March 29, 10:26 a.m. | Posted: March 5, 4 a.m.
On May 25, 2020, police officers were called to a south Minneapolis convenience store after clerks reported that someone was trying to pass counterfeit $20 bills. When the officers arrived, a manager pointed out George Floyd in the driver’s seat of a vehicle across the street. The officers detained and handcuffed Floyd, tried to force him into the back of a squad, then three officers took him to the pavement.
Floyd died after one officer, Derek Chauvin, knelt on his neck for about nine minutes. His killing sparked a worldwide reckoning about the treatment of Black people by police officers.
The four former officers charged in Floyd’s killing are currently scheduled for two separate trials — Chauvin in March, and Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng in August.
Gov. Tim Walz has called Chauvin’s trial “the most important trial in the country.” Here’s what you need to know. Click on a link to jump to a specific section.
- What charges does Chauvin face?
- How long will the trial take?
- How were jurors chosen?
- What will it be like to serve on the jury?
- What evidence will be considered?
- What are the defense’s arguments?
- What is the prosecution alleging?
- What does Chauvin's trial mean for the other three officers charged in Floyd's death?
- What was Floyd’s official cause of death?
- Who will be the key witnesses to testify?
- How are authorities preparing for the possibility of more civil unrest?
- What measures are being taken to keep trial participants safe from COVID-19?
- Where can I watch the trial?
- How much attention will this trial get?
- What questions do you have about the trial?
What charges does Chauvin face?
Judge Peter Cahill had dropped the third-degree murder charge in October, saying it didn’t apply. But the state Court of Appeals called on Cahill to reconsider, and then the Minnesota Supreme Court signaled it would not intervene. But then Cahill reinstated the charge.
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The second-degree murder charge requires that the defendant “causes the death of a human being without intent to effect the death of any person, while intentionally inflicting or attempting to inflict bodily harm upon the victim.”
Third-degree murder, or "depraved mind" murder, applies to someone who "causes the death of another by perpetrating an act eminently dangerous to others" and "without regard for human life." It's traditionally been applied to situations where more than one person was put at risk, but the appeals court ruling confirming the conviction of former officer Mohamed Noor found that it can also be applied to cases where only one person is the target.
The manslaughter charge requires that someone caused the death of another person through negligence.
State sentencing guidelines recommend 12.5 years in prison on the second- and third-degree murder charges for someone who has no criminal history. The presumptive sentence for someone convicted of second-degree manslaughter is four years. The judge has discretion to sentence someone to less or more prison time.
How long will the trial take?
Jury selection began March 9 and wrapped up March 23. Opening statements began March 29. Prosecutors are presenting their case against Chauvin, and they’ll followed by defense attorneys.
After each side presents its closing argument, the jury will go into deliberations until they reach a verdict on each count. If past trials are any indication, the whole process could take up much of April.
How were jurors chosen?
Beginning in late December, a group of more than 350 prospective Hennepin County jurors were mailed 14 pages of questions to answer. The questionnaire covered everything from their knowledge of the case to attitudes about police, the court system and the media.
Members of that group were summoned to the court building and interviewed by attorneys and the judge. They were instructed about the role of the judge and jury in the court system. They were reminded that Chauvin is presumed innocent, and that prosecutors have to prove the charges against him “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
If they were found to have an obvious conflict with serving as a juror for the case, the judge dismissed them from the jury pool for cause.
Chauvin’s attorneys also originally had 15 peremptory challenges and prosecutors had nine challenges, although the judge later gave each party three extra. The peremptory challenges allowed them to strike members of the jury pool without cause, although the challenges couldn’t be used to eliminate potential jurors on the grounds of race, ethnicity, religion or gender.
The jury consists of 12 members and two alternates. The group is more racially diverse than Hennepin County as a whole: Eight are white, four are Black, and two identify as multiracial. Five are men and nine are women.
What will it be like to serve on the jury?
Cahill has said in rulings that the public interest in the trial, and some actions of protesters, give him strong reasons to believe that “threats to jurors’ safety and impartiality exist.”
The identity of jurors will be kept secret until the judge releases them after the trial. Jurors will be partially sequestered during the trial, escorted from a secure location to a courtroom in the Hennepin County Government Center. They’ll be fully sequestered during deliberations.
What evidence will be considered?
The evidence includes videos of Floyd’s killing recorded by bystanders and police body cameras.
The judge has ruled that some previous incidents in which Chauvin used force could be introduced as evidence, although he denied the prosecution’s request to allow others.
A 2019 arrest of Floyd and a robbery conviction from Texas are not admissible.
What are the defense’s arguments?
Defense attorneys have signaled that they’ll argue Floyd died from methamphetamines and opioids that were found in his system, as well as underlying health problems — and not due to Chauvin’s knee on his neck. In a motion to dismiss charges, Chauvin’s attorney argued that “Floyd’s active resistance required an escalation of force,” and that Chauvin’s restraint of Floyd was consistent with Minneapolis police policy.
In a filing last fall, Chauvin’s attorney disclosed that he’d argue that Chauvin was not guilty, and that he acted in self-defense and was authorized to use that level of force because he was a police officer.
What is the prosecution alleging?
Charges against Chauvin say he repeatedly disregarded Floyd’s pleas that he couldn’t breathe while Chauvin knelt on his neck for about nine minutes, even after Floyd had stopped moving. They say that police are trained that restraining a person in that way is “inherently dangerous,” and that it was a factor in causing Floyd to lose consciousness and die.
What does Chauvin's trial mean for the other three officers charged in Floyd's death?
Chauvin will be tried separately from the other three officers charged in Floyd's killing. Thao, Kueng and Lane are scheduled to go on trial at the end of August.
When the four defendants were all scheduled to be tried together, legal experts say the strategy of the three officers charged with aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter might have been to blame Chauvin for the killing. Now that there are two separate trials that are being held months apart, some legal observers say the three officers now have more incentive to see Chauvin exonerated before their own trials can take place.
What was Floyd’s official cause of death?
The report by the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office concluded that Floyd died after “cardiopulmonary arrest, complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression.” They concluded that Floyd’s cause of death was a homicide.
Experts say that underlying health conditions, including an enlarged heart and blocked arteries, could mean that Floyd fared less well after he was restrained by officers but didn’t by themselves cause his death.
Representatives of Floyd’s family criticized the official autopsy. An autopsy commissioned by the family concluded that he died of “asphyxiation” due to neck and back compression. That report is unlikely to be admitted as evidence at trial.
Who will be the key witnesses to testify?
Chauvin’s attorneys have submitted a list of more than 200 possible witnesses, while prosecutors list more than 300. They include Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agents who investigated Floyd’s killing, Minneapolis police officers, medical personnel and bystanders. Each side also has a list of expert witnesses that they may call, including forensics pathologists and experts on policing practices.
Chauvin has the right to testify at his own trial, but it’s not yet clear whether he’ll choose to do so. Prosecutors also may call the other three former officers who are charged in Floyd’s killing; they aren’t scheduled to stand trial until August.
How are authorities preparing for the possibility of more civil unrest?
Gov. Tim Walz has been pushing for tens of millions of dollars in funding to pay security costs during the trial, although state Senate Republicans have opposed it.
The governor has also authorized the National Guard if the trial verdict sparks unrest. State officials have also enlisted hundreds of additional officers to provide security.
Authorities have installed concrete barriers and fencing around key buildings in downtown Minneapolis, including Minneapolis City Hall and the Hennepin County Government Center. Judge Cahill has also taken steps to make the trial itself more secure.
What measures are being taken to keep trial participants safe from COVID-19?
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, only two members of the media will be allowed into the courtroom each day, acting as a pool for other journalists covering the trial who will be based in a nearby building. Participants in the trial, including defendants and their attorneys, will be brought to the courtroom through nonpublic areas.
A coalition of media organizations, including MPR News, has repeatedly pushed the judge for public access to the proceedings. While cameras and recording devices typically aren’t allowed in Minnesota courtrooms, the judge is allowing this trial to be filmed by a media crew and livestreamed by media organizations.
Where can I watch the trial?
Chauvin’s trial will be livestreamed through a media pool. You’ll be able to watch proceedings through MPR News’ Facebook page.
How much attention will this trial get?
Floyd's killing in May and the ensuing protests and unrest focused the world's attention on Minneapolis. For this trial, news organizations like Der Spiegel from Germany, Agence France-Presse and Asahi Shimbun from Japan have reserved space in a media room. National news organizations like NPR, The New York Times, the Washington Post and Fox News are also expected to send journalists.