Nine months ago, a nine-minute encounter rocked Minneapolis and sent shockwaves around the world. After video surfaced of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck until he lost consciousness, continuing for minutes after Floyd's final words, policing practices came under intense scrutiny and racial justice protests spread across most continents.
In the coming weeks, Minnesota will once again be in the spotlight as Chauvin, a white man, is tried in the killing of Floyd, a Black man. Experts call it the most high-profile trial of a police officer in U.S. history.
Chauvin faces second-degree murder and manslaughter charges. Friday, March 5, the Minnesota Court of Appeals said a district court needs to reconsider the addition of a third-degree murder charge against the former Minneapolis officer.
The trial comes on the heels of several notorious Minnesota cases involving police killings. Former officer Jeronimo Yanez shot and killed Philando Castile, a Black man, during a 2016 traffic stop. In 2017, former officer Mohamed Noor shot and killed Justine Damond, a white woman, when she approached his police car, startling him, he said.
Yanez was acquitted of all charges and Noor was sentenced to 12.5 years in prison for committing third-degree murder.
Jamar Clark, a Black man, was shot and killed by police in 2015 just blocks from Minneapolis' 4th Precinct. The two officers involved, Mark Ringgenberg and Dustin Schwarze, didn't face charges.
Compared to these cases — one of which may still affect the charges in Chauvin's trial — and all the trials in the last 30 years since the police beating of Rodney King in 1991, there is no doubt in the mind of legal historians, former police chiefs and professors: The global significance of State vs. Chauvin is in a league of its own.
How Floyd’s death changed history
“This is the most famous police brutality prosecution in the history of the United States,” said former prosecutor Paul Butler, a professor at Georgetown University and expert on cases of police violence, in an interview with The New York Times.
A multitude of factors elevated Floyd’s killing to its unparalleled significance.
It came shortly after the highly publicized death of Breonna Taylor at the hands of Louisville police officers, and after a group of white men chased and shot Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was jogging in southern Georgia. The pent-up anger and frustration from the pandemic — which has killed Black people at a rate nearly two times that of white people — provided kindling for the demonstrations that swept the nation.
Additionally, widely circulated videos of Floyd pleading with officers not to kill him, calling for his mother, and repeating “I cannot breathe” while officers restrained him amplified the incident.
According to multiple sources, there was another factor that escalated tensions following Floyd’s death: The response from former President Donald Trump. In the days of demonstrations that followed Floyd's death, Trump tweeted that protestors were “thugs,” and said “when the looting starts the shooting starts” — a phrase originally used by former Miami police Chief Walter Headley during a 1967 outbreak of violence he said was caused by "young hoodlums" taking advantage of the civil rights campaign.
The events of May 25, 2020, began when a Cup Foods store clerk called the police, claiming that Floyd was attempting to use a counterfeit $20 bill in the store.
Four Minneapolis police officers responded to the scene: Chauvin, Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao.
Police bodycam footage shows that officers restrained Floyd and attempted to shove him into a police car. He struggled, crying out that he felt claustrophobic, after which officers forced him to the ground. He repeatedly told the officers he could not breathe, at one point wheezing, “you’re going to kill me man.”
More than once, officers responded that if Floyd was talking, he was fine. But even after he stopped talking, they continued to restrain him.
After bystanders screamed “check his pulse,” and “he’s not responsive,” Kueng felt Floyd’s wrist and muttered that he couldn’t find a pulse. Chauvin continued to kneel on Floyd for several minutes. None of the officers administered CPR until after he was lifted into the ambulance.
The ultimate cause of Floyd’s death has sparked debate.
A Hennepin County autopsy ruled Floyd’s death a homicide, caused by “a cardiopulmonary arrest while being restrained by law enforcement officer.” The report listed “arteriosclerotic and hypertensive heart disease, fentanyl intoxication and recent methamphetamine use” under “other significant conditions.”
A private autopsy commissioned by Floyd’s family also ruled the death a homicide, but found asphyxia was the cause of death.
An unprecedented trial and atypical jury selection
Jury selection for Chauvin’s trial is set to begin March 8 in the Hennepin County Courthouse. While most jury selections take about a day, according to University of St. Thomas law professor Mark Osler, this one is set to take two to three weeks.
Other highly publicized cases have taken their time, as well. The jury selection for the trial of the Los Angeles police officers who beat Rodney King in 1991 took about a month, for instance.
The Chauvin trial jurors are asked a set of over 80 questions, inquiring about their media consumption, views on the justice department and perspective on racial equity.
Respondents are also asked to rank how much they agree or disagree with a variety of statements, including “discrimination is not as bad as the media makes it out to be” and “I do not trust the police.”
The latest census reports show that 13.8% of Hennepin County’s population is Black, with Minneapolis’ slightly higher, at 19.2%. As Osler notes, Black people are historically underrepresented in juries, and the racial composition of this jury will certainly be under scrutiny.
The defense moved to relocate the trial to a different area of the state, arguing the jury pool in Minneapolis had been “tainted” by nonstop media coverage of Floyd’s death. In an order denying the motion, Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill said “no corner of the State of Minnesota has been shielded from pretrial publicity regarding the death of George Floyd.”
Opening arguments are slated for March 29. Pandemic-related restrictions only allow one member of Chauvin’s and Floyd’s family in the courtroom at a time.
Separate from the approaching trial, Chauvin is also the subject of a federal investigation, in which the U.S. Justice Department is collecting evidence in an attempt to show that he violated Floyd’s constitutional rights. Recent reporting revealed that he intended to plead guilty to third-degree murder in the days after Floyd’s killing, but Attorney General William Barr rejected his plea.
Kueng, Tao and Lane will be tried in August.
Aftershocks, a summer of reckoning and unrest
Security concerns for a trial of this magnitude are paramount, but efforts aren’t restricted to the courthouse itself.
“In the end, the security question isn't really about what's in the courtroom. It's going to be what happens in the streets after,” said Osler.
The flares of violence during the protests following Floyd’s death rocked Minneapolis, as protestors set fire to a police precinct and destroyed local businesses.
These outbreaks have many on edge for the approaching trial, anticipating a similar eruption may follow. A web page dedicated to the trial on the Minneapolis Downtown Council’s site includes “should I board my window up during the trial,” under its frequently asked questions section.
On the whole, the demonstrations were peaceful. A report from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, which tracked over 10,000 demonstrations, found that 95% involved peaceful participants. Yet, in the instances across the country where violence did escalate, at least 19 people died.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz requested a National Guard presence to increase safety during the trial.
Chris Burbank is no stranger to the tumult caused by high-profile trials of police officers. He started his career in law enforcement in the middle of the upheaval caused by Rodney King's beating. Since then, the vice president of law enforcement strategy for the Center for Policing Equity and the former chief of police of Salt Lake City has seen a remarkable lack of action.
“We have made absolutely no changes to use of force or deadly force statutes over the years,” Burbank said in an interview.
Since 2015, there have been 5,000 fatal shootings by on-duty police officers, according to an ongoing data investigation by The Washington Post.
The way Burbank views it, statutes controlling police officer conduct and how officers can be tried must change. And the Chauvin trial may spark the outrage needed to prompt that change.
“It is the time to make something happen,” Burbank said. “The idea is not to say, ‘Ah ha, got you cops,’ it's now to say, ‘All right, here's the new standard, and we're going to train you differently ... (and) maybe we're not going to respond to certain events.’”
Burbank listed the shooting of Philando Castile as a death that could have been prevented by limiting police interaction. After officers pulled him over in a traffic stop on July 6, 2016, in Falcon Heights, Minn., Castile informed them he had a gun in the car, which he had a concealed carry permit for.
Castile's girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her 4-year-old daughter were in the car with Castile. Reynolds said Castile was reaching for his license when officer Jeronimo Yanez shot him. The shooting caused a national uproar, again largely due to shocking video: Reynolds livestreamed the interaction on social media. Yanez was acquitted of all charges.
Burbank also cites Chauvin’s previous incidents of using head or neck restraints, most of which are not permissible in this trial, as evidence of failed leadership in the department. Prosecutors revealed that Chauvin used a neck restraint during a 2019 arrest until the subject was unconscious, and kept a woman on the ground by placing his knee on her neck during a 2017 arrest.
Activists remind that Floyd’s death was just one of many instances in which police have abused or killed Black individuals, with high-profile cases such as the shootings of Jacob Blake, Rayshard Brooks and Breonna Taylor by law enforcement occurring in the past year alone.
In a statement prepared for this story, Patrisse Cullors, co-founder and executive director of the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, said: “As we near the beginning of Derek Chauvin’s murder trial, we need to understand that bigotry, white supremacy, and complacency are also on trial. We all bore witness to the horrific events that led to the murder of George Floyd via the video that swept through the nation. We will never forget those eight minutes and forty-six seconds.”
On Wednesday evening, March 3, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which bans chokeholds, no-knock warrants, and ends qualified immunity for police officers.
Though momentum has built through the racial justice movement leading up to this trial, Burbank warns against placing great emphasis on its outcome.
“If we hang too much of what policing should be on whether or not this trial is successful, we are going to be sorely disappointed in this country,” Burbank said.
Editor's note: This story was updated at 3 p.m. Friday, March 5, with minor additions and clarifications.