The Chauvin trial: What you need to know

Derek Chauvin is charged with murdering George Floyd. Here’s what to expect in court next week.


Image by Shannon Doyle

The Hennepin County Government Center on Sunday, Feb. 28. The trial of Derek Chauvin, the police officer charged with the murder of George Floyd, will be held here starting on March 8.

by Emalyn Muzzy, City Reporter

On March 8, the state of Minnesota is slated to begin its trial against Derek Chauvin. He is on trial for second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter for allegedly killing George Floyd. The state could also take up a charge for third-degree murder, as reported by the Star Tribune.

He will be tried separately from the three other former Minneapolis police officers involved in Floyd’s death. Their trial is in August.

Chauvin’s trial will be livestreamed on Court TV, making it available for people worldwide and across campus to watch. Court trials can get confusing, especially for people who normally do not pay attention to them.

Here is what to expect in court.

Court process: Jury selection

The first part of the trial will consist of voir dire, or jury selection, which can take about three weeks.

The jury will consist of 12 people — with four alternates — who will be chosen by the prosecutors and defense.

Normally, attorneys strive to find jurors who have never heard of the court case, but because this is a highly publicized case, they will be looking for jurors who have not made up their minds regarding Chauvin’s guilt, said Dr. David Schultz, a visiting University of Minnesota law professor.

The court will start with a group of people and will interview them individually to determine if they will be a good fit for the case.

When deciding jurors, attorneys can dismiss people in two ways: using a “for cause strike” or “peremptory strike.”

A for-cause strike means that an attorney can explain with a good reason why they are letting a juror go.

“The defense will not want to have a person on the jury panel who says, ‘All cops are bad.’ That’s someone that defense is going to strike immediately,” said Abigail Cerra, a Minneapolis attorney and commissioner on the Minneapolis Police Conduct Oversight Commission.

With a peremptory strike, attorneys do not have to explain why they sent a juror away. The prosecution could dismiss a juror if they feel that person has a racial bias, even if they have not been outwardly racist. For that reason, both sides have finite peremptory strikes, Schultz said.

Chauvin’s defense will be allowed 15 peremptory challenges, and the state will be allowed nine.

A Batson challenge is likely to come up several times during this trial, Cerra said. If the defense strikes a juror because of their race, gender, ethnicity or religion, the prosecution can use the Batson challenge to question that decision, though Cerra said that a Batson challenge can be difficult to bring forward.

“A prosecutor will never say the words, ‘I am removing juror number six because they are of a different race,’” Cerra said. “But sometimes the facts surrounding that removal will lead a judge to say, ‘Yes, that’s an appropriate challenge, and that juror will stay in the pool,’ or ‘No, the prosecution is allowed to remove that juror.’”

Court process: Testimony

On March 29, the prosecution and defense are scheduled to begin their testimonies.

During the testimony part of the trial, the prosecutors and defenders will give their arguments.

In a court trial, the prosecutors have to prove that the defendant is guilty. “[The defense doesn’t] have to prove he’s not guilty. They merely have to poke holes in the prosecution’s arguments,” Schultz said.

The prosecution will have to prove both “actus reus” and “mens rea” for Chauvin to be found guilty on both accounts. “Actus reus” would mean that Chauvin caused Floyd’s death, and “mens rea” would mean he acted with culpable negligence or he knew his actions could harm or kill Floyd.

The prosecution will use the video of Chauvin with his knee on Floyd’s neck, Floyd’s autopsy, the police training Chauvin received and various witnesses and expert witnesses, according to Schultz. The defense will also use Floyd’s autopsy and expert witnesses as well as police body camera footage.

The county’s autopsy noted that Floyd died by homicide, but that he also had heart disease, had drugs in his system and was positive for COVID-19. The defense and prosecution will use the autopsies differently during testimony.

Once both sides give arguments, the jury will be sent away to deliberate and decide. Schultz estimates deliberation could take one to two weeks. During this time, the jury will talk over the evidence and can come back into the courtroom at any point to ask questions or look at pieces of evidence again.

The jury has to come to a unanimous decision for Chauvin to be found guilty.

“Let’s say 11 people find Derek Chauvin guilty of manslaughter, but one person holds out and says, ‘I have reasonable doubt.’ At that point, we basically have a hung jury,” Schultz said. “If there’s a hung jury, it’s a mistrial.”

In that scenario, the defense would not be trying to convince the entire jury that Chauvin is not guilty — only one person. A mistrial could get the charges dismissed, allow Chauvin to work out a plea bargain or lead to another trial.

Andrew Gordon, the deputy director for community legal services at Minnesota-based Legal Rights Center, said testimony will likely last four to six weeks.

“We will not be looking at a verdict until late April to early May,” Gordon said.

Regardless of the verdict, Chauvin could be in court for years. If found guilty, his defense will likely appeal the decision to higher courts. If found not guilty, Chauvin could face federal charges.

Cerra warns the public against comparing the Chauvin trial to TV court shows, as they are wildly different.

“All trials are tedious — it’s just a function of the law. There’s a lot of rules of evidence, rules of court. It’s not just a narrative process where someone comes in and gives their testimony and walks out,” Cerra said. “It is really not intuitive.”