In the official instructions presented to the Derek Chauvin trial jury before they go into deliberations, the defense and the prosecution have both suggested a closing line of: “We will await your verdict.”
The jurors seated for the murder trial of the former Minneapolis police officer charged in the death of George Floyd are well aware that in this case, the entire world is awaiting that verdict.
At the trial’s onset, the jurors were asked to set aside everything they knew about the bystander video that went viral internationally, showing Chauvin kneeling on Floyd for nearly 10 minutes. Instead, they were asked to judge the case based solely on the evidence presented in the courtroom.
The prosecution laid out its case against Chauvin over two weeks, and the defense attorney called his own witnesses during week three.
On Monday, April 19, 2021, the jury will hear closing arguments, then be sequestered to begin their deliberations. So what are the possible outcomes?
Chauvin is facing three charges: second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
The jury will be instructed to consider each charge and verdict separately. So Chauvin could be found guilty of one charge but be acquitted of the others. He could, of course, also be found guilty or acquitted of all three.
Each charge will come with a detailed set of instructions for the jurors to follow as they seek to reach a unanimous verdict. For instance, to convict Chauvin on second-degree unintentional murder while committing a felony, the jury must decide that the state proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Chauvin caused Floyd’s death while committing a felony. In this case, that felony is third-degree assault, which has to involve “substantial bodily harm.”
The jury will have to consider complicated definitions of what it means to “cause” a person’s death, and what constitutes “substantial bodily harm.”
The third-degree murder charge is also complex, asking jurors to consider whether Chauvin committed “an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind, without regard for human life.”
For second-degree manslaughter, prosecutors have to prove that Chauvin caused Floyd’s death by “culpable negligence whereby the person creates an unreasonable risk, and consciously takes chances of causing death or great bodily harm to another.”
None of the charges prosecutors chose to levy against Chauvin require them to prove that he intended to kill Floyd.
Of course, the jury has to consider all these charges under the further complication of the lawful standard for police use of force, which must be “objectively reasonable” from the perspective of another reasonable officer in the same situation.
There is always the possibility that the jury will be unable to come to a unanimous verdict, commonly referred to as a “hung jury.” The official term for this is a “deadlocked jury,” or one for which “the court finds there is no reasonable probability of agreement.”
If this happens, prosecutors would then have to decide whether to retry Chauvin. It would take a significant amount of time to once again prepare, go through pretrial motions and select a new jury.
While questioning potential jurors, defense attorney Eric Nelson asked each person if they are willing to stand their ground when everyone else disagrees with them. One person like this can change the course of a verdict, or potentially cause a hung jury.
Retired judge LaJune Lange said a hung jury is “not that common.” In her years on the bench, she can’t remember it happening to her. However, she did have juries return to her for additional instruction when they struggled to reach a unanimous verdict.
“The judge would give them an instruction that they could reconsider their own opinion and all the evidence and return to the jury room to continue their deliberations,” Lange said. “But that might be several days of deliberation before a jury would be brought into a judge saying that they have not been able to reach a unanimous verdict. That doesn’t happen automatically or right away.”
Lange said if the judge has to give further instruction, it will be carefully scripted.
“You have to quote the law,” she said. “This is something you absolutely cannot make up. So there’s all kinds of legal precedence in terms of limiting the specific language that you can talk to the jury.”
There’s no set amount of time a jury will be given to reach unanimity.
“It depends on the volume of evidence, the judge’s experience and then all other circumstances,” Lange said. “So it would not be a short process.”
One important point to remember, Lange said, is that the judge could accept a partial verdict if the jury can agree on at least one charge. If they are deadlocked on the other charges, the state may not be able to retry those again, because they are all part of a “common scheme.” Another way to explain this, according to former Hennepin County Chief Public Defender Mary Moriarty, is that “the charges all involve different theories about the same acts.”
According to the Minnesota rules of criminal procedure, “The court may accept a partial verdict if the jury has reached a verdict on fewer than all of the charges and is unable to reach a verdict on the rest.” The rules also state that partial verdicts “may bar further prosecution of any counts over which the jury has deadlocked.”
Moriarty said a judge could theoretically refuse to accept a partial verdict, but she has never seen it happen.
If Chauvin is convicted, there will be a presentence investigation to help determine the length of his sentence. Lange described this as a “background check” to learn more about his character and habits.
“That would allow the whole of the defendant’s life to come into play, which will not happen during the trial,” Lange said. “Everything he’s been up to could be opened to the public.”
During this stage, the prosecution is expected to ask the judge for an upward departure in the sentence, and would have to state the grounds. The sentencing guidelines establish specific criteria for this. One such possible grounds for departure could be “crimes committed in front of children,” since a 9-year-old bystander testified at trial.
“Once they do that then the judge is free to determine whether or not to accept the upward departure or sentence according to the guidelines,” Lange said.
According to the Minnesota sentencing guidelines, the presumptive sentence for a person such as Chauvin with no criminal history is the same for murder in the third degree and unintentional murder in the second degree: 12 and a half years. The guidelines give the judge discretion to sentence anywhere from 10 years and eight months to 15 years.
But if the judge rules that aggravating factors are present and he departs from the guidelines, the maximum sentence would be 40 years for second-degree murder, 25 years for third-degree murder and 10 years for second-degree manslaughter.
Lange said the judge will likely hand down concurrent sentences, instead of multiple consecutive sentences, because all three charges are related to the same crime.
Chauvin could file an appeal based on any number of things, as is standard after a conviction.
One especially high-profile possibility has to do with the third-degree murder charge, should the jury find Chauvin guilty on that count.
Prosecutors were allowed to file this charge against Chauvin, which historically has applied only when the death-causing act is directed at more than one person, because of a recent Minnesota Court of Appeals decision. That higher court upheld the charge against former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor for the shooting death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond.
However, the Minnesota Supreme Court is set to hear Noor’s appeal in June. If the state’s highest court reverses his conviction, it could have implications for Chauvin’s conviction on the same charge. There is also the possibility that Noor would appeal that case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.