New Charges in George Floyd Killing
Balancing social justice and criminal justice in a politically charged environment.
In the wake of massive demonstrations, the three officers who stood by and did nothing have now been charged. And new charges have been stacked atop those already filed against Derek Chauvin.
The Minneapolis Star-Tribune (“Attorney General Keith Ellison upgraded charges against officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck; charged other 3 involved“):
Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office on Wednesday upgraded charges against the former Minneapolis police officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck and charged the other three officers at the scene with aiding and abetting murder.
The decision came just two days after Ellison took over the prosecution from Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman and followed more than a week of sometimes-violent protests calling for tougher charges against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who had pinned Floyd to the ground and held him there for nearly nine minutes. Protesters also demanded the arrests of the three other former officers who were present but failed to intervene. All three were booked into the Hennepin County jail on Wednesday.
While I’m not a lawyer, much less well-versed in the intricacies of the Minnesota legal code, the new charges seem reasonable. The third-degree murder charge initially filed against Chauvin didn’t seem to comport with the length of time the killing took. And the lack of charges against the other officers seemed bizarre.
But the fact that the Attorney General is not only trying to manage the public’s outrage but is also an ambitious career politician who doubtless hopes to leverage this case into higher office is problematic. While Chavin’s guilt, in particular, seems unassailable given the video, the politicization of justice strikes me as inimical to a fair trial.
In my ideal world, prosecutors would stick to the facts of the matter. But this seems appropriate and non-prejudicial:
“To the Floyd family, to our beloved community, and everyone that is watching, I say: George Floyd mattered. He was loved. His life was important. His life had value. We will seek justice for him and for you and we will find it,” Ellison said.
However, he said, he doesn’t believe that “one successful prosecution can rectify the hurt and loss that so many people feel. The solution to that pain will be in the slow and difficult work of constructing justice and fairness in our society.”
And the justification offered for the increased charge against Chauvin is also reasonable, with one caveat:
Chauvin, who was recorded on video kneeling on Floyd’s neck as he begged for air on Memorial Day, now faces the more serious charge of second-degree murder, in addition to the original charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter with culpable negligence.
Chauvin was originally charged by the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office last week.
The amended complaint filed against Chauvin stated, “Police are trained that this type of restraint with a subject in a prone position is inherently dangerous. … Officer Chauvin’s restraint of Mr. Floyd in this manner for a prolonged period was a substantial factor in Mr. Floyd losing consciousness, constituting substantial bodily harm, and Mr. Floyd’s death as well.”
Don Lewis, special prosecutor in the case against Jeronimo Yanez, the former St. Anthony police officer who killed Philando Castile in 2016, said the nearly nine-minute recording of the moments before Floyd died showed ample evidence of intent to kill on Chauvin’s part.
“Those are moments to cause reflection on whether or not you’re in the middle of a wrongful death here,” Lewis said. “You have George Floyd begging for his life, right? ‘I can’t breathe.’ This is a moment of potential reflection on Chauvin’s part,” Lewis said. “He had multiple opportunities to change course here and decided not to over the span of almost 10 minutes.”
I think that’s right and thought so when the original charges were filed. The length of time involved is not, after all, new news. And it’s not unreasonable that, if the state is now prosecuting the case rather than the county (I don’t know sufficient legal expertise to know how unusual that is) that they re-evaluated the charges.
The caveat is that I loathe the practice of stacking charges, which is a bullying tactic by prosecutors to force guilty pleas. And it’s particularly bizarre here: under what plausible theory of the case can Chauvin simultaneously have committed 2nd-degree murder, 3rd-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter against a single victim?
The other officers at the scene — Tou Thao, J Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane — were each charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder while committing a felony, and with aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter with culpable negligence. Both charges are categorized as “unintentional” felonies.
Thao was recorded watching as Chauvin continued to press on Floyd’s neck with his knee. Kueng was one of the first officers on the scene and helped pin Floyd down. Lane was detailed in earlier charges as pointing a gun at Floyd before handcuffing, and he later asked whether officers should roll Floyd on his side as he was restrained.
By this description, Lane would seem in a different category than Kueng and Thao but all are obviously culpable. All had the duty to stop Chauvin.
The charges come just days after Gov. Tim Walz asked Ellison to take over the prosecution, which until Sunday had been led by the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office. Freeman stood next to Ellison as the attorney general announced the charges Wednesday, but he did not speak and left midway through the news conference.
Despite the quick pace of adding charges to the investigation, Ellison sought to manage expectations, cautioning that the cases could take “months” to see through. He also brushed off the idea that intense public pressure influenced the process.
Again, I don’t have sufficient expertise on the normal procedures. But it’s hard to believe that massive protests coupled with nationwide rioting and the highest degree of political scrutiny didn’t put pressure on Ellison and his team.
I also don’t love this:
Walz issued a statement after Ellison announced the new charges. “I laid flowers at George Floyd’s memorial this morning. As a former high school history teacher, I looked up at the mural of George’s face painted above and I reflected on what his death will mean for future generations. What will our young people learn about this moment? Will his death be just another blip in a textbook? Or will it go down in history as when our country turned toward justice and change?
“It’s on each of us to determine that answer,” Walz said. “The charges announced by Attorney General Keith Ellison today are a meaningful step toward justice for George Floyd. But we must also recognize that the anguish driving protests around the world is about more than one tragic incident.
“George Floyd’s death is the symptom of a disease. We will not wake up one day and have the disease of systemic racism cured for us. This is on each of us to solve together, and we have hard work ahead,” he said. “We owe that much to George Floyd, and we owe that much to each other.”
On its surface, it’s a perfectly lovely statement of compassion and unity from the state’s chief executive. His primary responsibility is to restore public order, but he also has a duty to help heal this open wound.
But it’s also, in effect, a plea to the jury pool who will try these former officers. Their job is to dispassionately look at the facts presented to them and judge whether the state has proven, beyond a reasonable doubt, the elements of the crimes charged. But the governor has just implored them that it’s their duty to send a message about racial justice that will go down in history.