“The most important number” in the trial of the former police officer charged with murdering George Floyd, a Black man, while arresting him last May in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is a length of time clocked in newly released body-camera footage. According to the prosecutor Jerry Blackwell, nine minutes and 29 seconds was how long Derek Chauvin kept his knee pinned on Floyd’s neck as he lay face-down on the street, repeatedly crying out that he couldn’t breathe, before appearing to go unconscious and ultimately dying. A crowd of screaming bystanders urged police to release Floyd, and video of the incident spread rapidly and widely, spurring unrest across the United States and a global protest movement against racism and police brutality. Chauvin is charged with second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. The evidence against him appears overwhelming. Could anything still complicate the prosecution’s case?

Christine Chambers Goodman is a professor of law who teaches evidence at Pepperdine University. As Goodman notes, the defense, which has been cross-examining witnesses but has yet to present its own case, will argue that, in the terms of Chauvin’s lawyer Eric Nelson, “the evidence is far greater than nine minutes and 29 seconds.” That evidence will include Floyd’s drug use, medical history, and behavior toward police, the key factors that could create reasonable doubt about Chauvin’s role in his death. All of this will be crucial to the jury’s understanding of the context of the incident, which they will be under instruction to consider dispassionately. Which in this case is an unusually complex proposition. “We won’t be in a situation where there will be explicit disregard of the rules, in terms of what the jury is supposed to consider,” Goodman says, “but this jury is a different jury than it would have been a year ago.”


Graham Vyse: Chauvin faces three charges: second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. Can you explain the differences?

Christine Chambers Goodman: For unintentional murder under Minnesota law, what [prosecutors] have to prove is that the defendant was committing some kind of felony while death was caused. If you’re committing a felony, which in this case would be third-degree assault, and in the course of that felony someone dies, that is what this second-degree [murder] charge is for. Even if the murder wasn’t intentional, the assault was intentional.

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