What to expect during the trial of Derek Chauvin, the ex-police officer charged with murdering George Floyd

Opening arguments begin on Monday in Minneapolis

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Monday 29 March 2021 15:05
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Opening arguments begin on Monday in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged with murdering George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by kneeling on his neck during an arrest last May.

Mr Floyd’s death was caught on camera, and the anger and grief over his death ignited some of the largest protests against policy brutality, and for racial justice in US history.

Mr Chauvin was charged with second- and third-degree murder, and manslaughter. His trial will be the latest test of whether an officer accused of fatal wrongdoing will be held accountable.

A number of high-profile police killings of Black people, among them Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and Freddie Grey, have not ended in convictions. In some cases, like the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor in Louisville in 2020, no charges were brought against law enforcement.

Here is some of the essential information and context about how to watch and understand the case.

When is the Derek Chauvin trial?

The main phase of the trial will start on Monday, 29 March, at 9am (Central Time), and could last for weeks. A livestream of the court proceedings can be found each day online at CourtTV, as well as on local television.

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What are the main questions in the Derek Chauvin trial?

The central question is not whether Derek Chauvin came into contact with George Floyd on 25 May. Video from police body cameras and civilian bystanders captured what happened: Mr Chauvin arrested Mr Floyd and knelt on his neck for around 9 minutes. Three other officers who were part of the fatal incident go on trial later this year.

The jury will be tasked with answering whether Mr Chauvin was sticking to proper police procedure during the stop, and what is the exact cause of Mr Floyd’s death. In video of the incident, Mr Chauvin continues to kneel on his neck, even as Mr Floyd can be seen begging for air before becoming hoarse and losing consciousness.

County officials ruled his death a homicide last summer, but noted the "other significant conditions" like Mr Floyd’s existing heart disease, as well as recent fentanyl and methamphetamine use.

Hennepin County District Court Judge Peter A Cahill has certified that the jury will hear information relating to both Mr Chauvin’s past use of force while with the Minneapolis police department, as well as Mr Floyd’s prior arrests, where paramedics and health officials noted pre-existing health conditions and likely drug use

What’s happened so far in the Derek Chauvin trial?

Jury selection in the case began earlier this month on 9 March, and has previewed some major themes of the trial. Jurors were asked about their opinions of police, systemic racism, and Black Lives Matter, as well as whether they’d seen the extensive media coverage of Mr Floyd’s death or attended the protests that followed.

In the end, the court selected a mostly white jury. Studies have shown that race is often a key factor in who gets picked to serve on juries—and who they end up convicting.

As jury selection proceeded, the city of Minneapolis reached a settlement with Mr Floyd’s family for $27 million, one of the largest in US history. Mr Chauvin’s lawyers argued that the timing of the settlement, as well as protests and media coverage since Mr Floyd’s death, were cause for a delay or outright relocation of the trial. The court rejected that request. 

Ahead of the trial, parts of downtown Minneapolis have been fortified with massive fences and razor wire to maintain security.

How does the trial connect to the bigger picture?

After years, decades, and centuries of civil rights activists calling for police reform, Mr Floyd’s death seemed like the final straw, sending millions into the streets during a pandemic to call for change, and that energy goes beyond interest in the trial.

The city Minneapolis is currently re-negotiating its police union contract, and earlier this month the city council voted to move towards disbanding the force altogether and replacing it with a new department of public safety.

Another push for reform has come at the national level. Congress is debating, and the House has already approved, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would end qualified immunity and set national policing standards, among other changes.

There’s also, of course, the matter of how the community will react to the eventual verdict in the trial, and how that will factor into future calls for reform.

In 1992 four Los Angeles police officers, three of them white, were acquitted at trial after being caught on video savagely beating Rodney King, a Black man. The verdict set off a massive outpouring of grief and rage that paralyzed LA for days.

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