Derek Chauvin Trial: Week One

March 8-12 marked the first week of the criminal trail of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer accused of second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter for the death of George Floyd. This recap will open with the trial court’s reinstatement of the third-degree murder charge and then discuss the parties selection of 14 jurors, two of whom would be alternates. Then this recap will conclude with the March 12th announcement that the City of Minneapolis had reached an historic settlement agreement with the Floyd family over its civil claims for damages, which may have an impact on the Chauvin  and the other criminal cases against the other ex-police officers accused of aiding and abetting Chauvin’s alleged crimes.

Reinstatement of Third-Degree Murder Charge [1]

On March 11, Hennepin County District Court Judge Peter Cahill decided that the third-degree murder charge would be reinstated after the Minnesota Court of Appeals had rebuked his previous refusal to follow the majority opinion of a three-judge panel of that appellate court’s upholding the third-degree murder conviction of another former Minneapolis policeman, Mohammed Noor. 

Judge Cahill said he was “duty bound” to accept the appellate court’s ruling and its interpretation of the relevant statute as covering “single acts directed at a single person.” Moreover, “it would be an abuse of discretion not to grant the motion” to reinstate the charge.

Rachel Paulose, former U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota and now a professor at the University of St. Thomas Law School in Minneapolis, says the prosecution correctly asserted this charge since Chauvin threatened to harm witnesses who attempted to intervene to provide medical help to Floyd in addition to the harm to Floyd caused by the chokehold on the latter’s neck. Nevertheless, this additional charge carries the risk that the Minnesota Supreme Court in the pending case of the third-degree murder conviction of another former Minneapolis policeman, Mohammed Noor, might interpret this crime’s requirements more narrowly and enable Chauvin to escape criminal liability if this is the only charge on which he is held guilty at trial.

Minnesota Standards for Potential Jurors [2]

Minnesota Rule of Criminal Procedure 26.02, subd. 1 provides that a county’s jury list shall be “composed of persons randomly selected for a fair cross-section of qualified county residents.”

Rule 26.02, sub. 5(1) then provides 11 specified grounds for challenging a potential juror “for cause.” The most relevant one for the Chauvin trial appears to be “1. The juror’s state of mine—in reference to the case or to either party—satisfies the court that the juror cannot try the case impartially and without prejudice to the substantial rights of the challenging party.” Subd. 5 (3) then goes on to say, “If a party objects to the challenge for cause, the court must determinate the challenge.” 

First Week of Chauvin Jury Selection [3]

In preparation for the task of selecting jurors in such a case of wide importance and publicity, the trial court earlier had submitted to potential jurors a 14-page questionnaire with questions about race, policing, martial arts and podcasts.” That court also had determined that Chauvin would have 15 preemptory challenges (8 of which were used this week); the prosecution, only 9 (five of which were used this week).

By the end of the week, seven people had been selected for this jury, five men and two women. Four are white and three are people of color: one black man in his 30’s, one biracial woman in her 20’s, one Hispanic man in his 20’s, one white woman in her 50’s, a white man in his 20’s and two white men in their 30’s. Six of them said they held “a somewhat favorable view of the Black Lives Matter  movement” although some said that view was more for its concept, not its tactics or politics. A jury consultant said “asking about Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter gave lawyers a concrete way to frame conversations about otherwise uncomfortable topics.”

According to Wall Street Journal reporters, during this first week lawyers for both sides “often focused their questioning on Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter and how jurors answered . . . [the court’s] questionnaire answered a questionable item about ‘defunding the Minneapolis Police Department.” This was seen by the reporters as the lawyers attempting to discern “whether potential jurors can put aside their personal opinions while evaluating evidence presented in court—though lawyers haven’t always been swayed by such pledges.”

The founder and chief organizer of Black Lives Matter Minnesota told the Wall Street Journal that he was encouraged that some of initial seven jurors held a positive view of this group while disappointed that the only black individual chosen so far was an immigrant who came to the U.S. more than a decade ago, rather than someone whose ancestors “went through slavery, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights era and who understands the history of our relationship with the police.”

Another issue arose this week over “spark of life” testimony allowed by a Minnesota statute to humanize the deceased victim. The Judge said that he would allow such witnesses to speak about how much they loved Mr. Floyd, but that if they started talking about his character,, it would “open the door’ for the defense to introduce evidence of his criminal history, which so far has been barred by the court.

As someone who only watched a few minutes of the questioning of the prospective jurors (the process of voire dire) and who saw only the questioning by Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, this blogger was impressed by his logical and conversational tone and maintenance of a straight face and thought that the prospective jurors probably would believe he was someone who deserved to be listened too during the trial. (After retiring from the practice of law, I was summoned for jury duty and was once a potential juror in a civil case who was very annoyed with the manner of one of the attorneys posing questions to the panel; I was eliminated as a juror as I expected because very few, if any, trial lawyers would want to have a lawyer as a juror.)

Settlement Between City of Minneapolis & Floyd Family [4]

On Friday, March 12, Minneapolis city officials and lawyers for the Floyd family publicly announced that they had agreed to settle the latter’s civil lawsuit for money damages with the city’s payment of $27 million.

Mayor Jacob Frey called it a milestone for the city’s future and a reflection of “a shared commitment to advancing racial justice and a sustained push for progress.” Indeed, Frey said the city would implement major policy changes in the pursuit of racial justice. The city’s coordinator, Mark Ruff, added that with cash reserves, officials were confident that this agreement would not lead to an increase of the city’s property taxes.

Ben Crump, the lead lawyer for the family said it would set an example for other communities: “After the eyes of the world rested on Minneapolis in its darkest hour, now the city can be a beacon of hope and light and change for cities across America and across the globe.” Crump also said that this settlement “sends a powerful message that Black lives do matter and police brutality against people of color must end.” the family had pledged to donate $500,000 of the settlement to “lift up” the neighborhood around the site of the killing of Mr. Floyd. And Floyd’s brother pledged to use some of the money to help other struggling Black communities.

Some commentators thought this agreement might make it even harder to seat an impartial jury. A former city chief public defender thought the timing of this agreement “could hardly be worse” for the criminal case against Chauvin and his lawyers might even ask for a mistrial if potential or already chosen jurors saw the agreement as the city’s acknowledgment that his actions were inappropriate.

======================================

[1] Paulose, Opinion: The third-degree murder charges against Derek Chauvin carry worthwhile risks, Wash. Post (Mar. 12, 2021); Bogel-Burroughs, Derek Chauvin will now face a third-degree murder charge, N.Y. Times (Mar. 11, 2021); Court of Appeals Reverses District Court’s Refusal To Follow Precedent on third-Degree Murder Charge Against Derek Chauvin, dwkcommentaries.com (Mar. 5, 2021).  Derek Chauvin again charged with third-degree murder, StarTribune (Mar.  11, 2021); Bailey, Derek Chauvin trial judge reinstates third-degree murder charge in the death of George Floyd, Wash. Post (Mar. 11, 2021)

[2] Minn. Rules of Criminal Procedure 26.02, subdivisions 1, 2(3), 5(1), 5(3);Court’s Questionnaire for Prospective Jurors in George Floyd Criminal Cases, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 23, 2020).

[3] Dewan & Arango, What Are the Question for Potential Jurors in the Derek Chauvin Trial?, N.Y. Times (Mar. 7 & 11, 2021);  Levinson, Jury selection begins in Derek Chauvin’s trial in the death of George Floyd. Here’s what to expect, CNN.com (Mar. 11, 2021); Xiong & Walsh, StarTribune (Mar. 12, 2021); Bailey, Hints of strategy and new revelations in first week of Derek Chauvin murder trial, Wash. Post (Mar. 15, 2021).

[4] Bogel-Burroughs & Eligon, George Floyd’s Family Settles Suit Against Minneapolis for $27 Million, N.Y. Times (Mar. 12, 2021); Bailey & Olorunnipa, George Floyd’s family to receive recored $27 million in settlement approved by Minneapolis city council, Wash. Post (Mar. 12, 2021); Barrett & Winter,George Floyd Family Reaches $27 Million Settlement with Minneapolis, W.S.J. (Mar. 12, 2021). Here are summaries of the federal civil complaint by the Floyd family against the City of Minneapolis from dwkcommentaries.com: George Floyd’s Family Sues City of Minneapolis and Four Ex-Officers Involved in His Death (July 16, 2020); George Floyd Family’s Complaint Against City of Minneapolis Over His Death: Count II (July 18, 2020); George Floyd Family’s Complaint Against City of Minneapolis Over His Death: Count III (July 19, 2020).

Results of 9/11/20 Hearing in George Floyd Criminal Cases

Information about what happened at the 9/11/20 hearing is provided by many media reports.[1] Here is a summary of those reports, again following the court’s Agenda for the hearing.

State’s Motions

Joint Trial. The State’s arguments were presented by Special Assistant Attorney General Neal Katyal, the famous attorney, law professor and commentator from Washington, D.C. He argued that the evidence against all four defendants is similar, that witnesses and family members are “likely to be traumatized by multiple trials” and that the interests of justice necessitate a single trial because separate trials would taint future juries. He also said, “The defendants watched the air go out of Mr. Floyd’s body together. And the defendants caused Mr. Floyd’s death together.”

Thao’s attorney responded to the last point by arguing that the jury pool already has been tainted by comments about the case by Attorney General Ellison and others.

A St. Paul attorney who is not involved in the case, Paul Applebaum, said, “it’s going to be tough for the defense attorneys to get the cases separated, partly because it would be difficult for Chauvin to blame the other officers for the charges of murder and manslaughter against him, but also because of the burden of holding four separate trials.”

Aggravating Factors for Upward Sentencing. Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank argued that Floyd was particularly vulnerable because he was handcuffed and pinned to the ground. Judge Cahill expressed some skepticism of this point by asking whether what happens during an encounter qualifies for this purpose.

In  its Notice of Intent To Offer Other Evidence of 9/10/20, the State said it intended to offer evidence of Chauvin’s eight prior instances of use of excessive force, including use of  neck and upper body restraints.  In four of those, Chauvin allegedly used them “beyond the point when such force was needed under the circumstance,” an indication of his pattern, including his restraint of Floyd.[2]

Defendant’s Motions

 Motions for Change of Venue. Judge Cahill said it was too early to decide on a change of venue for the trial. He noted that Hennepin County District Court has been sending questionnaires to potential jurors to complete at home because of COVID risks and for the sake of expediency and that the court could start polling potential jurors ahead of the scheduled March 8 trial.

But two of the defense attorneys argued that the questionnaires should be completed in person at the courthouse because it carries more weight and meaning. Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank agreed.

In response to defense arguments about adverse public opinion in Hennepin County, the Judge asked one of them, “There really isn’t a country, would you agree, or a state in this country where there hasn’t been a lot of publicity about George Floyd’s death?”

Jury Sequestration. The Judge said “it would be almost cruel to keep them in on weeks at a time. Instead, he suggested they be “semi-sequestered:”  jurors drive to court each day for deputies to escort them from their vehicles to a secure elevator, have their lunches brought in to the jury room and then have them escorted back to their vehicles.

Motion to Disqualify HCAO [Hennepin County Attorney’s Office]. From the bench Judge Cahill said the HCAO’s work “sloppy” because they sent prosecutors to question the medical examiner, making them witnesses in the case. Therefore, he disqualified County Attorney Freeman and three assistants who questioned the Examiner because they are potential witnesses. However, others from the Office were not disqualified.

Afterwards Freeman and the Minnesota Attorney General requested reconsideration of this decision, which Judge Cahill granted. The request stated, “Any suggestion by Judge Cahill that the work of . . . [two Assistant County Attorneys] was sloppy was incorrect. The . . .[HCAO] fully stands by the work, dedication and commitment of two of the state’s best prosecutors. That third party mentioned by Judge Cahill does not need to be a non-attorney. [The two attorneys in question] asked to leave the case on June 3 and Frank [the other attorney in question] is the attorney of record, making . . .[the other two attorneys] valid third-parties and eligible to be called as witnesses by the defense. This HCAO decision is consistent with the relevant Minnesota Supreme Court case.

Rule 404 Evidence Motions. The Judge denied defense’s intent to offer evidence regarding Floyd’s arrest and conviction in Texas as it was irrelevant. He also denied the defense request for evidence regarding Floyd’s 05/06/19 medical incident at the Hennepin County Medical Center although he said it could come up at a later date.

Administrative Matters

Jury Selection. The Judge said that he anticipates jury selection will take two weeks with each prospective juror to take the witness stand for questioning by the attorneys.

COVID-19 Restrictions. The Judge said these restrictions would be in place with overflow rooms for family and press.

Trail Length. The Judge said he anticipates a four-week trial.

Conclusion

Although I was not in the courtroom to observe the Judge, the journalists’ reports suggest that the Judge is leaning towards a consolidated trial of all four defendants in Hennepin County under his supervision.

During the 3.5 hour hearing a highly organized, peaceful group of several hundred protesters gathered in front of the heavily fortified Family Justice Center. At first they laid silently on the ground for eight minutes and 46 seconds, which was the initially reported duration of the police pinning of Floyd on the pavement on May 25th (that figure was incorrect; the corrected number is seven minutes and 46 seconds).[3] When they rose, Marvin Gaye’s recorded voice sang, “Mother, mother, there’s too many of you crying” (the first verse from the late singer’s 1970 song “What’s going on”).

The protesters then repeatedly chanted, “Indict, Convict, Send These Killer Cops to Jail. The Whole Damn System Is Guilty As Hell!” Another call was “Say his name!” with the “George Floyd” response. Another: “Who killed him?” and “MPD.” The messages on their signs included the following: “No clemency for killer kkkops” and “Recall Freeman” and a reconfigured MPD badge to say “Murderous City of Lakes Police.”

When Lane and Kueng and their attorneys left the building, they were met by protestors yelling “Murderer!” The crowd then remained until Floyd’s family members left the building, and many of the protestors turned into a dance line, including the Electric Slide.

The protestors apparently are not aware that their protests are ammunition for the defendants’ arguments for transferring the cases to another county, where emotions are not so virulent. The protestors should adopt a different strategy.

After the hearing, Ben Crump, an attorney for the Floyd family, publicly expressed outrage over defense suggestions that Floyd’s use of drugs or earlier run-ins with the police were relevant to the killing of Floyd. “The only overdose was an overdose of excessive force and racism. It is a blatant attempt to kill George Floyd a second time.”

=================================

[1]  Xiong & Olson, Judge disqualifies some in Mike Freeman’s office for ‘sloppy work’ in George Floyd case, StarTribune (Sept. 11, 2020); LIVE UPDATES: Tentative 2-week jury selection, 4-week trial format for George Floyd case, kstp.com (Sept. 11, 2020); Judge In Floyd Case Disqualifies Members of Hennepin co. Attorney’s Office, minnesota.cbslocal.com (Sept. 11, 2020); Olson, Protestors confront former Minneapolis police officers with shouts of ‘murderer,’ StarTribune (Sept. 11, 2020); Protestors Shout At Former MPD Officers As They Exit Pretrial Hearing in George Floyd Case, minnesota.cbslocal.com (Sept. 11, 2020); Collins & Williams, George Floyd killing: Judge disqualifies Freeman from cops’ trial, MPRNews (Sept. 11, 2020); Read Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman’s response to being disqualified from George Floyd case, StarTribune (Sept. 11, 2020); Furber, Arango & Eligon, Police Veteran Charged in George Floyd Killing Had Used Neck Restraints Before, N.Y. Times (Sept. 11, 2020); Bailey, Prosecutors allege former Minneapolis officer used neck restraint in several other cases before George Floyd’s death, Wash. Post (Sept. 11, 2020); George Floyd’s Family Lawyer Pushes Back on Police Claims (video), N.Y.Times (Sept. 11, 2020); Officers charged in George Floyd killing seek to place blame on one another, Guardian (Sept. 11, 2020).

[2] State’s Notice of Intent To Offer Other Evidence, State v. Chauvin, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12646 (Hennepin county District Court Sept. 10, 2020).

[3] Revised Length of Time for Minneapolis Police Restraint of George Floyd. dwkcommentaries.com (June 18, 2020).

 

George Floyd’s Family Sues City of Minneapolis and Four Ex-Officers Involved in His Death      

On July 15, attorneys for the family of George Floyd (by their trustee Kaarin Nelson Schaffer, a Minnesota attorney and resident of Hennepin County) sued the City of Minneapolis and the four ex-police officers involved in Floyd’s death—Derek Chauvin, Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng.[1]

Here we will review the public announcement of the case by the lead plaintiff’s lawyer, Ben Crump, the names of the other 11 plaintiff’s attorneys and the background of U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson, who will preside over this case.

The 40-page Complaint has three counts. “Count I—42 U.S.C. §1983—Fourth Amendment Violations” is asserted against the four ex-policemen while counts II and III are against the City of Minneapolis: “Count II– 42 U.S.C. §1983—Monell Liability” and “Count III–42 U.S.C. §1983—Canton Liability.” A subsequent post will dive into the details of these counts.[2]

Attorney Crump’s Statement

“This is a crisis in Black America — a public health crisis. While all of America is dealing with the public health crisis of the coronavirus pandemic, Black America has to deal with another public health pandemic of police brutality. This is a teachable moment for America.”

In addition to the misconduct for the four ex-policmen, the lawsuit alleges that local officials “with deliberate indifference” have failed to correct the police department’s dangerous arrest practices and train officers properly in the use of force.

“This complaint shows what we have said all along, that it was not just the knee of officer Derek Chauvin on George Floyd’s neck. But it was the knee of the entire Minneapolis Police Department on the neck of George Floyd that killed him. The City of Minneapolis has a history of policies, procedures and deliberate indifference that violates the rights of arrestees, particularly Black men, and highlights the need for officer training and discipline.”

While not specifying how much the family will seek in compensation, Crump said, “This is an unprecedented case, and with this lawsuit we seek to set a precedent that makes it financially prohibitive for police to wrongfully kill marginalized people — especially Black people — in the future.” In short, the case is “the tipping point for policing in America.”

Crump said that how the city leaders react to the demands put forth by the Floyd family lawyers will have consequences. “Their political legacy will be defined by how they respond,” he said.

Other attorneys for the Floyd family, Antonio M. Romanaucci and L. Chris Stewart, also spoke . Ms. Stewart said,  “The Floyd family deserves justice for the inhumane way in which officers with the Minneapolis Police Department killed Mr. Floyd. The city has a responsibility to acknowledge the history and practices of excessive force and impunity with its police force, as well as shortfalls in officer training and discipline.”

Plaintiffs’ Lawyers[3]

The following two Minnesota attorneys are on the Complaint for the plaintiff: Jeffrey S. Storms of the law firm of Newmark Storms Dworak LLC and Michelle R. Gilboe of the law firm of Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP. In addition, there are the following ten other attorneys for the plaintiff who are not Minnesota attorneys and, therefore, will have to be permitted to participate in this case (pro hac vice) by the Court:

  • Ben Crump of the Ben Crump Law firm of Washington, D.C.
  • Antonio M. Romanaucci, Bhavani Raveendran and Nicolette A. Ward of the Chicago law firm of Romanucci & Blandin, LLC.
  • William Pintas and Laura Mullins of the Chicago firm of Pintas and Mullins Law Firm;
  • Devon M. Jacob of the Jacob Litigation, Inc. firm of Mechanicsburg, PA;
  • Chris Stewart and Justin Miller of the Stewart Trial Attorneys firm of Atlanta, GA; and
  • Scott Masterson of the Minneapolis firm of Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, LLP.

Judge Susan Richard Nelson[4]

The case was randomly assigned by the Clerk of Court to the 68 year-old District Judge Susan Richard Nelson, who served as U.S. Magistrate Judge for the District of Minnesota, by appointment of the Court’s judges, June 12, 2000, until she was confirmed as a U.S. District Judge of that court on December 22, 2010, upon recommendation of U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, nomination by President Barack Obama and unanimous confirmation by the U.S. Senate. She obtained her B.A. degree with high honors from Oberlin College and her J.D. degree from the University of Pittsburgh Law School. Her initial professional employment was with a Pittsburgh law firm (1977-80) and a New Haven, Connecticut law firm (1980-1983). In 1984 she moved to Minnesota and joined the Minneapolis law firm of Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi as an associate (1984-88) and then was promoted to partner (1988), where she served until she became a U.S. Magistrate Judge. At the Robins firm, her practice focused on civil trial practice involving complex product liability and mass tort lawsuits.

Conclusion

 After subsequent posts that will examine the details of the three counts of the Complaint, we will await to see what attorneys will be representing the defendants, any potential motions attacking the complaint and the rigors of pretrial discovery (requests for production of documents and responses, written interrogatories and responses, requests for admissions and responses and oral depositions) followed by any possible motions for summary judgment and decisions thereon. Then the case would move to trial. Of course, settlements are always a possibility at any point during this complex (and expensive) process.

======================================

[1] Reuters, George Floyd’s Family Sues Minneapolis and Four Officers Over His Death, N.Y. Times (July 15, 2020); Assoc. Press, Floyd Family Sues Minneapolis Officers Charged in His Death, N.Y. Times (July 15, 2020); Bailey, George Floyd’s family files wrongful-death lawsuit against City of Minneapolis and former officers, Wash. Post (July 15, 2020); Furst & Walsh, George Floyd family sues city of Minneapolis, officers involved citing ‘reckless disregard’ of civil rights, StarTribune (July 15, 2020); Treisman, George Floyd’s Family Files Civil Lawsuit Against Minneapolis And Police, Lawyers Say, MPR News (July 15, 2020); Attorney Ben Crump To File Civil Rights Lawsuit For Floyd’s Family, CBS Minnesota (July 15, 2020) (video of much of Crump’s statement).

[2] Complaint, Schaffer v. Chauvin, Case No, 0.20-cv-01577-SRN-TNL (D. Minn. July 15, 2020). Read the lawsuit filed by family of George Floyd against Minneapolis, four ex-police officers, StarTribune (July 15, 2020).

[3] Complaint at 38-40.

[4] Susan Richard Nelson, Wikipedia; Off the Cuff with Judge Susan Richard Nelson, The Oberlin Review (July 15, 2020).