Arguments in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is accused of murdering George Floyd, begin on Monday, with the world watching what has been described as one of the most important – and irregular – trials in modern US history.
Floyd’s death, which occurred while Chauvin had his knee on his neck, was filmed and widely viewed, sparking nationwide protests against police brutality and calls for systemic change. Opening statements began at 930am local time (1430 GMT) on Monday.
Jury selection ended on March 23. Four of the 12 jurors are Black and two identify as multiracial, according to the court, meaning half the jury is not white – a much larger percentage than the demographics of Minneapolis itself, which is about 63.6 percent white and nearly 20 percent Black, according to the US Census. The two alternates are white.
The demographics could ease concerns that a jury lacking diversity might weaken faith in the verdict, though some have criticised the judge excusing Black candidates who described negative experiences with police.
Michael Padden, a Minneapolis-based lawyer with 34 years experience trying cases, often involving the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD), told Al Jazeera that is unusual for a trial in Hennepin County.
“The most people of colour I ever had in a felony jury trial was three, it was two African Americans and one Asian person,” Padden said, pointing to authorities’ use of drivers licences, which skew white, as a way to call jurors.
There is usually some question about the circumstances of the alleged crime, as video and photographic evidence tend to be scarce, but the multiple videos of Floyd’s death leave little room for uncertainty.
“Most of the time in jury trials, you have ambiguity”, but “everybody knows what went down”, Padden said.
“So the question is, is that criminal? Obviously, Chauvin’s going to argue it wasn’t.”
Proving unintentional second-degree murder means the prosecution must show beyond a reasonable doubt that Chauvin caused Floyd’s death while committing or attempting to commit another felony, third-degree assault.
That requires proof Chauvin committed assault or attempted assault against Floyd, killing him in the process. The charge carries a sentence of 10.75 to 15 years, under Minnesota sentencing guidelines.
Padden explained Chauvin’s lawyer Eric Nelson is likely to argue Chauvin “was trained to handle the situation in this way” and call expert witnesses to support these claims and challenge the cause of death.
Nelson has said fentanyl found in Floyd’s bloodstream was the true cause of death. He asked Judge Peter Cahill to reconsider admitting evidence based on a previous arrest of Floyd in 2019, when he allegedly swallowed several opioid painkillers as police approached.
Padden said it was important to remember the “jury is not obligated to accept the testimony of any expert witness”, and Floyd’s “cause of death” is an “easier issue” for the prosecution.
Bringing up the fentanyl argument is a risky move, Padden continued, saying Nelson “has to be careful about soiling this man’s grave”.