Chauvin faced three charges: second-degree murder, or a death that occurs in the course of another crime, in this case an assault on Floyd; third-degree murder, or killing someone when acting without regard for human life but also without intent to kill; and second-degree manslaughter, or killing with “culpable negligence.”
Floyd’s death was depressingly familiar—the latest in a string of deaths at the hands of police—yet it was also an exceptional case. Bystanders captured video of the entire sequence, showing Chauvin’s apparent calm indifference as he slowly squeezed the life out of Floyd. Condemnation came quickly—not only from many longtime critics of police violence and from ordinary citizens, but also from law-enforcement officers of all ranks around the country.
Historically, murder prosecutions of police officers are extremely rare, and among the few cases that are tried, convictions are also extremely rare. (One of the few notable convictions in recent years was the 2019 conviction of Mohamed Noor, another Minneapolis officer, in the 2017 shooting death of an unarmed woman.) Prosecutors and juries alike tend to give officers broad leeway to act as they see fit in the heat of the moment.
The Floyd case, however, gave prosecuting attorneys a strong hand to play. Although they called a long succession of witnesses, including experts on both medicine and policing, prosecutors Steve Schleicher and Jerry Blackwell appealed to jurors in their closing argument to use their “common sense” in assessing the case against Chauvin. They noted that even a 9-year-old eyewitness could tell that Chauvin was killing Floyd. But prosecutors also relied heavily on the police to make the case.
“To continue to apply that level of force to a person proned out, handcuffed behind their back—that in no way, shape, or form is anything that is by policy,” Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said on the stand. “It is not part of our training. And it is certainly not part of our ethics or our values.”
Several other members of the department, including a use-of-force trainer, also testified that Chauvin had used more force than he should have. Lieutenant Richard Zimmerman, the department’s most senior officer and leader of the homicide unit, described Chauvin’s actions as “totally unnecessary.” Prosecutors called a Minneapolis firefighter, Genevieve Hansen, who came across the scene while off duty and begged police to check Floyd’s pulse.
Despite the backlash against police since Floyd’s death, Schleicher framed the case against Chauvin as a defense of officers who do things right, portraying the defendant as a bad apple who besmirched his colleagues’ good names.
“This is not an anti-police prosecution,” he said. “It’s a pro-police prosecution.”
Given the evidence, Chauvin’s attorney, Eric J. Nelson, faced a difficult task. Rather than mount a vigorous defense of his client’s innocence, Nelson sought to muddy the waters by convincing jurors that the state hadn’t proved their case beyond a reasonable doubt.