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March 29, 2021

The trial of former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin is set to being today 10 months after the death of George Floyd beneath his knee launched a global wave of protests.

This unprecedented trial which would be covered live by multiple networks for the first time in the history of Minnesota, in what has become probably the most important trial in the Black Lives Matter era.

Chauvin, 45, has pleaded not guilty to second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter charges.

Citing disturbing video of Floyd's final moments, prosecutors say Chauvin unintentionally killed Floyd while using excessive force during an arrest on May 25, 2020. Defense attorneys plan to make the case that Floyd died of unrelated medical issues and drug use, and they have argued Chauvin was following proper police protocol.

Floyd's death led to a societal reckoning with America's past and present of anti-Black racism and aggressive policing. During jury selection, prospective jurors were asked about their views on Black Lives Matter, defunding the police, and former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick's decision to kneel during the National Anthem.

Earlier Monday morning, Floyd's family members and several attorneys knelt for 8 minutes and 46 seconds outside the courthouse to commemorate the time Chauvin was originally reported to have stayed on Floyd's head and neck. (Prosecutors later amended the exact time to under 8 minutes.)

"Today starts a landmark trial that will be a referendum on how far America has come in its quest for equality and justice for all," said attorney Benjamin Crump.

The trial will take place at a heavily fortified Hennepin County courthouse surrounded by fencing and law enforcement. Due to Covid-19 precautions, plexiglass barriers have been set up inside the courtroom, and witnesses and attorneys are required to wear masks when not speaking.

Opening statements and witness testimony are expected to last about four weeks, followed by deliberations. Six men and nine women have been chosen to serve on the jury, and ultimately 12 of them will decide Chauvin's fate.

The three charges against Chauvin are to be considered separate, so he could be convicted of all, some, or none of them.

If convicted, Chauvin could face up to 40 years in prison for second-degree murder, up to 25 years for third-degree murder, and up to 10 years for second-degree manslaughter. Minnesota's sentencing guidelines recommend about 12.5 years in prison for each murder charge and about four years for the manslaughter charge.

The trial will not debate Floyd's symbolism or the merits of Black Lives Matter. Instead, it will mainly focus on two things: the cause of death and Chauvin's intent.

The Hennepin County Medical Examiner's autopsy listed Floyd's cause of death as heart failure due to "law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression," and ruled it a homicide. The medical examiner, Dr. Andrew Baker, also noted Floyd's arteriosclerotic and hypertensive heart disease, fentanyl intoxication, and recent methamphetamine use as "other significant conditions."

Chauvin's defense attorneys have argued those other conditions were the real cause of death.

In a filing last August that previewed this defense, attorney Eric Nelson argued that Chauvin was acting within police policy and had no intent to harm Floyd. He argued that Floyd's cause of death was not Chauvin's knee but was the result of a drug overdose combined with preexisting heart problems, a prior Covid-19 infection, and other health issues.

To get a guilty verdict, prosecutors have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt Chauvin caused Floyd's death. So a series of forensic pathologists are expected to take the stand to debate this issue, including a likely contentious cross-examination of Dr. Baker.

The three charges differ primarily in how they interpret Chauvin's intent and mindset during the arrest. The second-degree murder charge says Chauvin intentionally assaulted Floyd with his knee, which unintentionally caused  Floyd's death. The third-degree murder charge -- which was added to the case in recent weeks -- says Chauvin acted with a "depraved mind, without regard for human life." And the second-degree manslaughter charge says Chauvin's "culpable negligence" caused Floyd's death.

Combined, the charges give jurors three different ways of deciding how liable Chauvin is for Floyd's death -- if at all -- and how well he understood the risk to Floyd.

The defense has not indicated whether Chauvin will testify in his own defense. But given the importance of his mindset to the charges, he may do so to try to explain his behavior and gain the jurors' sympathy.

Source: BBC
Image Source: Getty Images