Tim Arango, New York Times, February 10, 2021
It was three days after George Floyd died in police custody last May, and businesses in the Twin Cities were on fire. Police officers were shooting rubber bullets and tear gas to hold back protesters, their anger fueled by a cellphone video of Mr. Floyd, a Black man, gasping for breath under the knee of a white officer.
As soldiers prepared to take to the streets, the officer, Derek Chauvin, believed that the case against him was so devastating that he agreed to plead guilty to third-degree murder. As part of the deal, officials now say, he was willing to go to prison for more than 10 years. Local officials, scrambling to end the community’s swelling anger, scheduled a news conference to announce the deal.
But at the last minute, according to new details laid out by three law enforcement officials, the deal fell apart after William P. Barr, the attorney general at the time, rejected the arrangement. The deal was contingent on the federal government’s approval because Mr. Chauvin, who had asked to serve his time in a federal prison, wanted assurance he would not face federal civil rights charges.
An official said Mr. Barr worried that a plea deal, so early in the process and before a full investigation had concluded, would be perceived as too lenient by the growing number of protesters across America. At the same time, Mr. Barr wanted to allow state officials, who were about to take over the case from the county prosecutor who has had tense relations with Minneapolis’s Black community, to make their own decisions about how to proceed.
Now, in the lead-up to Mr. Chauvin’s trial, which is scheduled to begin with jury selection on March 8, there is great uncertainty about the case’s outcome and whether the proceedings could provoke more violence.
Some office workers in downtown Minneapolis have already been told not to come to work during the weekslong trial because of heavy security. The National Guard will be deployed, transforming the city center into a military zone, with Humvees and armed soldiers monitoring checkpoints. In his recent budget proposal, Gov. Tim Walz included a special $4.2 million item for security during the trial, as well as a $35 million fund to reimburse local law enforcement agencies that may be called upon to quell unrest.
The trial may yet be delayed. The prosecution has asked an appeals court to put off the proceedings, citing the risk that the trial, with so many demonstrators likely to fill the streets, becomes a superspreader event during the coronavirus pandemic.
The state is also appealing a decision by Judge Peter A. Cahill to separate the trial of Mr. Chauvin, who is charged with second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter — the initial charge of third-degree murder was dropped — from the trial of three other former officers involved in Mr. Floyd’s death, two of whom were rookies with just a few days on the job.
The three ex-officers who were with Mr. Chauvin during Mr. Floyd’s final minutes — Thomas Lane, who held Mr. Floyd’s legs; J. Alexander Kueng, who was positioned on Mr. Floyd’s back; and Tou Thao, who held off angry bystanders — are scheduled to face trial on aiding and abetting charges in August.
Legal experts, and lawyers involved in the case, say that Judge Cahill’s decision to hold separate trials could benefit Mr. Chauvin — whose lawyer had pushed for a separate trial — because he will no longer have to face the possibility of the other three men pointing the blame at him.
In fact, that has already been playing out behind the scenes: Defense attorneys for those former officers have shifted from crafting strategies built on establishing the culpability of Mr. Chauvin to offering their help to his defense. If Mr. Chauvin were acquitted — a possibility that many officials fear could lead to more upheaval and second-guessing about the failed plea deal — the other three men would likely not face trial at all.
At trial, the central question will most likely be the exact cause of Mr. Floyd’s death. The county medical examiner ruled the death a homicide caused by a combination of the officers’ use of force, the presence of fentanyl and methamphetamine in Mr. Floyd’s system and his underlying health conditions. But Mr. Chauvin’s defense strategy, which has emerged in numerous court filings from his lawyer, Eric Nelson, is centered on presenting medical evidence that Mr. Floyd died of a drug overdose.
Jurors will remain anonymous during the trial, and possibly sequestered. A questionnaire has been mailed to prospective jurors, asking them a number of questions, including their opinions on the Black Lives Matter movement and the effort to “defund the police,” a rallying cry of last summer’s social unrest, and whether they participated in any protests.