Many Black Americans have died at the hands of police officers over the years. Sometimes promises of change are made while funerals are being planned. Sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers have met their fate at the hands of the police. George Floyd was one of them.
Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty by a jury of three counts of manslaughter and murder concerning Floyd’s death on April 20. His sentencing is expected June 16, and his attorneys are expected to appeal the verdict. If not for smartphone video, Chauvin probably wouldn’t have been charged, and Floyd’s death would be just a statistic to those who didn’t know him.
How the deaths of those in police custody are socially acceptable will depend on the continuing activism of those trying to cut the number of people killed by police, ongoing demands for police accountability, the availability of smartphones, and the desire of witnesses to video encounters with police.
If a witness, 17-year-old Darnella Frazier, hadn’t made a video of Floyd’s treatment by police and his death, most of us would not know his name. Charges would probably not have been filed without it. That video is the reason all the good work from this tragedy has been accomplished. Video is changing criminal trials significantly. This is a prime example.
When a violent arrest is recorded, it often makes it harder to say police violence was justified. Seeing Floyd pinned face down against the street, his hands in cuffs behind his back, with a knee on his neck for nearly nine-and-a-half minutes, was something the jury couldn’t un-see.
No matter what the defense’s experts said, those words didn’t have nearly the impact of watching someone slowly suffocate to death under the weight of police officers who had no concerns about his health. The defense’s claims that Chauvin didn’t intend to harm Floyd and that his actions didn’t actually hurt Floyd are just not credible, given the video.
If the incident had happened in Florida and was captured on video here as well, it would have been difficult for a prosecutor not to bring charges against the police officer, though they would have been different due to concerns of double jeopardy (a second prosecution for the same offense after being acquitted or conviction of multiple punishments for same offense).
Chauvin was charged and convicted of three counts under Minnesota law:
If this were a Florida case, Chauvin probably would have faced only a second-degree murder charge, which is similar, but not the same, as under Minnesota law. Given the evidence that Chauvin committed a battery, the second-degree murder charge was appropriate. No matter who the defense attorney was, they could do only so much with the facts and the video.
The prosecution’s case was about more than showing how Floyd died. One medical expert testified that just having Floyd handcuffed behind his back while being face down on the street endangered his health. The Minneapolis police chief and other officers testified that Chauvin’s actions were not justified or approved of under department policies.
The “blue wall of silence,” or the unwillingness of police officers to testify against each other, has probably prevented a successful prosecution in many criminal trials. This time officers were featured witnesses. They should be commended for their bravery, and the Minneapolis police department should be thanked for their support.
Fundamentally, everyone has a constitutional right to appeal a criminal conviction. Though Florida’s timeline for an appeal is likely different, the process is similar in all states. At this point, defense attorney would have to base an appeal on alleged legal errors by the judge.
Possible grounds for an appeal may be the refusal to move the trial out of Minneapolis, because the jury may have been biased against the defendant due to media exposure of Floyd’s death. The defense may also claim that the jury convicted Chauvin because they feared the community’s response if they did not. Without getting admissions by jury members that their decision was tainted, the defense has almost no chance of success.
If appeals are filed, the role of trial lawyers becomes crucial, as appellate judges would have to consider whether or not it is conceivable that the trial’s outcome could have been different if the trial judge had ruled differently regarding a change of venue. If the answer is no, the jury’s ruling will stand.
The three Minnesota laws carry with them possible sentences of up to 40, 25, and 10 years in prison. The state’s sentencing guidelines recommend less time for defendants with no criminal history and that sentences be served at the same time. This would mean Chauvin would serve time only on the second-degree murder charge.
Chauvin’s lawyer will probably argue that since Chauvin has no criminal record, he should not serve more than the suggested sentencing range of just over ten-and-a-half to 15 years in prison. Prosecutors will likely ask the judge to ignore the guidelines due to aggravating factors, which largely leave sentencing to the judge’s discretion. These factors include that Floyd’s death…
As you can see, there’s a lot at stake for Chauvin and his family, as well as a community concerned about law enforcement accountability.
There’s a lot at stake if you’re arrested, too. Attorney Michael Panella helps clients defend against criminal charges, and he will work aggressively on your behalf. He will explain your legal options, put together the best defense possible, and negotiate the best outcome given your circumstances. Get your defense started by calling the Panella Law Firm at 407-233-1822.