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Explainer: What were charges against Chauvin in Floyd death?

April 20, 2021 Updated Tue., April 20, 2021 at 10:20 p.m.

In this image from video, former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin, left, is taken into custody after the verdicts were read Tuesday at Chauvin’s trial for the 2020 death of George Floyd.  (POOL)
In this image from video, former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin, left, is taken into custody after the verdicts were read Tuesday at Chauvin’s trial for the 2020 death of George Floyd. (POOL)
By Amy Forliti Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS – The 12 jurors who convicted Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd had three counts to consider and returned guilty verdicts on all three.

Chauvin was convicted of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Jurors could have convicted him of only some of the charges, or none.

The case came down to two key questions – whether Chauvin caused Floyd’s death and whether his actions were reasonable – and each charge required a different element of proof as to Chauvin’s state of mind.

Here’s an explanation of the charges:

How do the charges against him compare?

For all three charges, prosecutors had to prove that Chauvin caused Floyd’s death and that his use of force was unreasonable.

Prosecutors didn’t have to prove Chauvin’s restraint was the sole cause of Floyd’s death, but only that his conduct was a “substantial causal factor.” Chauvin is authorized to use force as a police officer, as long as that force is reasonable.

To convict on any of the counts, jurors had to find that Chauvin used a level of force that would be considered unreasonable to an objective officer in his position. Hindsight can’t be a factor.

The charges differed when it comes to Chauvin’s state of mind – with second-degree murder requiring some level of intent – not an intent to kill but that Chauvin intended to apply unlawful force to Floyd – all the way down to manslaughter, which required proof of culpable negligence.

What’s second-degree unintentional murder?

It’s also called felony murder. To prove this count, prosecutors had to show that Chauvin killed Floyd while committing or trying to commit a felony – in this case, third-degree assault. They didn’t have to prove Chauvin intended to kill Floyd, only that he intended to apply unlawful force that caused bodily harm.

Prosecutors called several medical experts who testified that Floyd died from a lack of oxygen because of the way he was restrained. A use of force expert said it was unreasonable to hold Floyd in the prone position for 9 minutes, 29 seconds, handcuffed and face-down on the pavement.

“No reasonable officer would have believed that that was an appropriate, acceptable or reasonable use of force,” prosecution witness Seth Stoughton testified.

Defense attorney Eric Nelson tried to raise doubts about Floyd’s cause of death – saying underlying heart issues and drug use were to blame. He argued Chauvin’s actions were reasonable, saying Floyd was big, under the influence of something, could start fighting and that nearby bystanders presented a threat.

“It’s easy to sit and judge … an officer’s conduct,” defense witness Barry Brodd testified. “It’s more of a challenge to, again, put yourself in the officer’s shoes to try to make an evaluation through what they’re feeling, what they’re sensing, the fear they have, and then make a determination.”

What about third-degree murder?

For this count, jurors had to find Chauvin caused Floyd’s death through an action that was “eminently dangerous” and carried out with a reckless disregard for and conscious indifference to the loss of life.

Mark Osler, a professor at University of St. Thomas School of Law, said prosecutors tried to prove the elements of this count through testimony about the dangers of subduing a handcuffed person in the position.

Dr. Martin Tobin, a lung and critical care specialist, testified for the prosecution that any healthy person subjected to this restraint would have died. Minneapolis Police Lt. Johnny Mercil, a use-of-force instructor, testified officers are trained to “stay away from the neck when possible.” Osler said Police Chief Medaria Arradondo was also effective in showing Chauvin was not trained to use such a hold.

“They wanted to have a lot of evidence showing that what Chauvin did is not what he was trained to do and that the reason they don’t train people to do that is because it’s eminently dangerous,” Osler said.

And second-degree manslaughter?

Prosecutors had to show that Chauvin caused Floyd’s death through culpable negligence that created an unreasonable risk, and that he consciously took the chance of causing severe injury or death.

Testimony that revealed Chauvin should have known to put Floyd in a side recovery position, that he should have provided medical care before paramedics arrived and that he stayed in his position after he was told Floyd didn’t have a pulse could all point to negligence, said former U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger.

Where is Chauvin now?

Chauvin, who has been free on bail for the last several months, was handcuffed after the verdicts were read and taken into custody. A sheriff’s deputy escorted him out of the courtroom through an interior door.

The Minnesota Department of Corrections said Tuesday night he was at the state’s maximum security prison in Oak Park Heights, due to an arrangement with the county sheriff and the Department of Corrections. That’s the same prison where Chauvin was moved after his arrest for security reasons.

What sentence could he get?

Each count carries a different maximum sentence: 40 years for second-degree unintentional murder, 25 years for third-degree murder, and 10 years for second-degree manslaughter. But Minnesota has sentencing guidelines that call for far less.

Under the guidelines, a person with no criminal history would receive a presumptive sentence of 12½ years for each murder charge and a presumptive sentence of four years for manslaughter. The guidelines allow for a range slightly above and below those presumptive sentences, which is up to a judge’s discretion.

But in this case, prosecutors are seeking a sentence that goes above the guideline range, called an “upward departure.” They cited several aggravating factors, including Floyd was particularly vulnerable, Chauvin was a uniformed officer acting in a position of authority, and his crime was witnessed by multiple children – including a 9-year-old who testified watching the restraint made her “sad and kind of mad.”

After the verdicts, Attorney General Keith Ellison said his office would be seeking a “fair” and “just” sentence. He would not be specific, but said: “We believe there are aggravating factors and the sentence should exceed the sentencing guidelines.”

So what’s next?

Chauvin waived his right to have a jury consider whether there were aggravating factors that would call for an upward departure – leaving that decision in the hands of Judge Peter Cahill. Cahill said he would give both sides a week to write legal briefs about aggravating factors, then he’ll take a week to issue findings on that issue.

Cahill ordered a pre-sentence investigation report, which is required in Minnesota and normally confidential. This report is typically prepared by a probation officer and includes information such as a defendant’s characteristics, circumstances, criminal record and social history. It includes details of the offense and harm it caused others.

Cahill said both sides will be able to respond to that report before he issues a sentence in two months. An exact date for sentencing has not been set.

In Minnesota, defendants typically serve two-thirds of their penalty in prison, with the rest on parole.

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