Derek Chauvin on Trial

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S1: The Hennepin County Government Center in downtown Minneapolis is one of those faceless bureaucratic buildings, the kind of place you go to track down a birth certificate or county record. It’s mostly court stuff. John Collins from Minnesota Public Radio, he knows this building pretty well.

S2: So it will be where people go when they have to pay a traffic ticket or contest one or maybe get some sort of license or something.

S1: Sounds like a place you’ve been just for normal life. Oh, yeah. I mean, I go for my job. I go there, like, pretty regularly. But over the last few weeks, John’s watched the government center transform close itself off. There’s a ring of perimeter fencing now. Concertina wire employees who work here are being told to stay home. Court hearings have been moved out. This building has a singular purpose.

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S2: Now it will be the SHERVIN trial, and that’s that’s pretty much it.

S1: The SHERVIN trial, as in the trial for the police officer accused of killing George Floyd over the last year, George Floyds death sparked an international protest movement and amplified calls to defund the police. In Minneapolis, riot and protest sometimes intermingled. A police precinct house was set on fire. Dozens of businesses were looted. And now the city is preparing for another public reckoning. Do you feel like the city, the county, the state, do you feel like they’re ready for what’s about to happen?

S2: I think the city probably city leaders are trying to predict exactly what they can do to make sure that there’s not a repeat of some of the more dangerous things that happened last year.

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S3: And I mean, like, for instance, my neighborhood was surveilled by helicopters for I don’t know how long weeks and weeks, there were just helicopters all day long every day. And we’re starting to hear those helicopters again.

S4: I think that kind of lends to the air of uncertainty and, you know, frankly, like some people are a little scared about exactly what’s going to happen. And you know what the impact on our city could be today on the show.

S5: The pursuit of legal accountability is taking shape in Minneapolis, but the path forward is anything but guaranteed. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.

S1: Part of the reason I wanted to talk to you about the trial is that you’ve covered criminal justice issues in and around Minneapolis for a long time. And so you see this case is not just one case, but part of a larger pattern in the state. I’m wondering if you can explain that a bit.

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S2: Yeah. I mean, so in Minnesota, like many other places, we’ve had high profile killings of civilians by police officers for decades and decades. You know, I mean, the relationship specifically between the black community in Minneapolis and police has never been good. Police misconduct has been at the root of a lot of tensions. And we could go all the way back to like 1966, 1967, when there were riots in the north part of the city. It was police misconduct that sparked those. And we’ve had so many high-Profile shooting deaths, mostly of black men by police officers that people I talked to say that, you know, every time something happens, whether it’s in Minneapolis or in the suburbs or St. Paul, that the trauma that that they feel it builds on it. So the reaction has also built it kind of built into pressure that was put on prosecutors to have accountability.

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S1: You’ve talked about this like snowballing effect. But I was struck that your A.G., Keith Ellison, he’s been pretty honest that prosecuting police officers is hard. And he’s pointed out that the county attorney for Hennepin County involved in this case is the only prosecutor in the state who successfully prosecuted a police officer for murder, which is pretty remarkable.

S2: I mean, we’ve only had one police officer who’s been convicted in the state for four killings, one on duty. We’ve had three trials so far, though, and the other two have been exonerated. So, yeah, it’s really difficult. And I mean, in Minnesota and like in many other states, because of the protections that police officers are given under the law, because the law does acknowledge that their jobs are hard, that they’re dangerous, that they do have authority to use force, it can be really difficult to get successful charges in that case. And traditionally, jurors are sympathetic to police because they understand that it can be a tough and dangerous job.

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S1: And this isn’t a shooting death. It’s a death where Dirk Shravan put his knee on George Floyds neck for nearly 10 minutes. And that kind of restraint I’ve read, it’s never led to serious charges like this before.

S2: Normally when we cover these trials. So this will be the fourth trial of a police officer in Minnesota for killing someone. And normally when we cover them, one thing that’s at the heart of arguments from the defense is that you can’t legally use 20/20 hindsight and say, hey, I knew that Flandreau Castiel was not up to any trouble or whatever. The jury has to consider what a reasonable police officer would do at the time, knowing what they knew and having to make a split second decision. So that has given officers a lot of leeway. But this case involves, as you said, an officer who didn’t make a split second decision. He made a decision for nine minutes to kneel on George Floyds neck. So that kind of changes this case and makes it different than any other case that we’ve had with police officers in Minnesota. So that’s a different sort of peace to this one that might influence how the jury comes down.

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S1: Hmm. So starting today, the jury is going to be selected for Derrick Chauvin’s trial. And we should say that the other officers who were with him when George Floyd died are also accused of crimes, but different crimes. And their trial isn’t going to be until August, is that right?

S2: That’s right. At the end of August. And they’re charged with aiding and abetting murder or manslaughter, whereas Derek Shervin is charged with murder and manslaughter.

S1: I mean, it strikes me that you’ve got a city where everyone has sort of seen what’s happened over the last few months, the protests. But we also have this pandemic going on. And so that’s a really dicey circumstance to be choosing a jury, because everyone probably has an opinion on what took place and no one really wants to be in the same room together. So how how’s that moving forward?

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S2: Yeah, prosecutors really wanted to push the trial back. Their argument was that holding a trial during a pandemic before many people are vaccinated in the state presents not only a danger to the people who have to be in the courtroom, but to the public if there are protests or large gatherings and the judge declined to move. Chauvin’s trial, instead, he split up the defendants into two separate trials, so Sheldon goes on trial now by himself, and then the other three defendants will go on trial after. But like an interesting twist about this is because there are such restrictions on who can gather in the courtroom proper, we’re not going to have much media presence or any members of the public, really, that are allowed in the courtroom. There’s just not space to keep it safe. And so what they’re doing is allowing the media to live stream from different cameras in the courtroom to our organizations.

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S1: So and typically, there aren’t cameras in the courtroom, right?

S2: Yeah. Minnesota never allows cameras in the courtroom. You can have a recording and you certainly can’t take pictures or anything. It’s one of the more restrictive court systems in the country.

S1: And I read that the jurors are being mailed like 14 pages of questions about all kinds of things, about how they feel about the police and conspiracy theories and the media.

S2: Yeah, and Black Lives Matter and what their experiences are with the court system, with police officers. I mean, they really want to give these attorneys what these people’s backgrounds are and beliefs and see if they can fairly assess whether an officer did commit a crime or not.

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S1: As of the time we’re recording this, what Derrick Showband is being charged with is actually still being decided. That’s because prosecutors want to charge him with second degree unintentional murder and second degree manslaughter and third degree murder in Minnesota. Third degree murder has typically been reserved for a case in which more than one person has been put at risk, say, if someone shoots into a crowd. But the state attorney general wants to expand this definition.

S2: So that’s why prosecutors are pushing yet again to get third degree murder reinstated. And we still don’t know exactly how that is going to pan out, but it would make it way more difficult for Derrick Chauvin and his attorney to defend him against three separate charges. Why is that harder? I think it restricts the arguments that he can make to say that it’s not his fault or to say that it was self-defense because he now has to avoid implicating himself for third degree murder and the exact definition in statute of that, as well as second degree murder and second degree manslaughter. And so it’s more challenging legally and it restricts the arguments that he can make to defend himself.

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S1: Do you look at this changing interpretation of what third degree murder is in Minnesota as meaningful in terms of what prosecutors are now willing to do or how aggressively they want to pursue charges against police officers?

S2: So when I was talking to the other day, an attorney was arguing that maybe the changing case law, the way the appeals court interpreted third degree murder, maybe means that that is a charge that can be successfully prosecuted against police officers if they have this broader sort of definition of that. So, I mean, if it is upheld by the state Supreme Court where it’s headed now, that could potentially be one more and maybe a more solid tool for prosecutors in future prosecutions if they they do have incidents where police kill someone.

S5: After the break, how Derrick Chauvin’s use of force fits into a larger pattern that Minneapolis is trying to disrupt.

S1: Let’s turn to Derek Chauvin, who’s accused of killing George Floyd. I should just say, I mean, police encountered George Floyd after an employee of a corner store, a place called Cub Foods, alleged he might have been trying to use counterfeit money. So what do we know about Shervin, like what have we learned about him in the last few months?

S2: Derek Showband is a veteran police officer. He was the senior officer. He’s been, you know, essentially the trainer, essentially think of you as the mentor for younger officers, just kind of showing them the ropes. We do know that he has pretty extensive number of complaints about him, most of which were not substantiated. And we don’t know what they were exactly, but some of that will come up at trial.

S1: I think I read you said 22 complaints in 19 years.

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S2: It’s hard to tell with Minneapolis police because if they’re not substantiated, we don’t know what they are. And in many cases, there’s not any sort of, you know, punishment that’s meted out or discipline that’s meted out. Minneapolis police have a history of doing this thing where they essentially coach the officer who did something and that they don’t consider discipline. So it often doesn’t become public.

S1: So if someone does something wrong, instead of referring it as a complaint, they gently correct an officer.

S2: Yeah, exactly. It’s something that critics will argue makes it difficult to keep officers who are abusive or overstep their authority accountable.

S1: I know your colleagues have spoken to some people who complained about Derek Chauvin and were even choked before George Floyd died. I wonder what you learned from those cases.

S2: I mean, some of them look really similar to other cases that we’ve seen in the city. You know, it kind of points to how entrenched Minneapolis police culture is and they will make the argument at trial. Chauvin’s attorney will make the argument that, you know, using that sort of hold on, George Floyd, it was not something they were taught not to do. And it’s something that maybe even came up during some trainings. But I mean, it doesn’t surprise many people to know what happened or to to see the video.

S1: Another defense that I’ve heard in this case is that George Floyd died with drugs in his system and he had underlying health problems and that those weren’t due to anything Derek Chauvin did. Do you think we’ll be hearing about that as well?

S2: That’s really at the heart of the case. I mean, what his attorneys are going to be arguing is that George Floyd died not because of a knee on his neck, but because he had methamphetamines and fentanyl in his system and he had heart problems or, you know, like long term sort of health problems that contributed to him. The prosecutors will argue that the knee is the most important thing, that most important factor in why he died, because without it, you know, he still would have had these underlying health problems. He still would have had drugs in his system, but he would have been alive.

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S1: It strikes me that this trial or these trials aren’t the only way to hold the police accountable for what happened with George Floyd and this pattern that you’ve you’ve documented of deaths at the hands of the Minneapolis police. There was so much conversation months ago about defunding the police in Minneapolis.

S2: What happened with that and Minneapolis that contributed to the national dialogue with, you know, vouchers from the majority of our city council to essentially defund the police. It turned out that that was more complicated than they thought. And it’s still I mean, their vision is still in process. The city council has a so essentially Minneapolis is required to maintain a certain level of police from our city charter. You know, essentially our city constitution and city council members have been trying to change that wording to make it so that Minneapolis doesn’t have to maintain a certain number of Minneapolis police officers and can create a new essentially Department of Public Safety. But as of now, I mean, the council was slightly cut, the Minneapolis police department’s budget. They took more than a million dollars and moved it over to what we call this the Office of Violence Prevention here. And then there have been quite a few policy changes as well, both at the city level and then state mandates. Like what? So Mayor Jacob Frye has announced policies like, say, changing the times when officers are given the authority to use force, changing how they report when they do use force, restricting things like no knock warrants.

S1: What’s changed at the state level since May?

S2: The Minnesota Department of Human Rights essentially ordered the city to ban the use of chokeholds by Minneapolis police and to require officers to intervene if they see a colleague of theirs using force that’s not authorized in the state legislature. Also passed legislation. Lots of activists said it didn’t go far enough, but it did include a ban on, you know, the so-called warrior training, this very aggressive militaristic training and then, you know, some sorts of trainings that teach officers how to deal with people who have autism.

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S1: Is there anyone out there talking explicitly about ways to change the culture of the Minneapolis police? Because it seems like such a tricky thing to do, but also so vital.

S2: Mayor Jacob Prai has said that’s one of his priorities. He’s actually like well known for making a statement that let me just paraphrase this. The culture eats policy for breakfast. So changing the culture is how you actually make a difference in changing the Minneapolis police and their interactions with the public. But do we know that it’s making any impact or difference? You know, I mean, I think that’s the like daily lived experience of people is going to tell us that.

S1: I mean, you’ve covered a lot of trials like this one in the Minneapolis area. Are there particular signs you’re looking for as this trial plays out that will indicate what’s going on behind the scenes?

S2: One thing that will be very interesting is how other officers, not even folks who are charged, will testify, you know, say folks who were called to the protest right after George Floyd was killed and just minutes after he was taken away by an ambulance, you know, a crowd started gathering there. What were they saying on their body cameras to other officers? And what does that tell us about how they view the public and how they viewed this incident from the very beginning? I mean, there is, you know, famously. A phrase that law enforcement will often use when on duty killings are talked about and they will say it’s lawful, but it’s awful, you know, essentially meaning it doesn’t look good, but it’s not illegal. And I’m curious to see how officers talk to each other, like in the minutes after this happened and whether they knew that potentially this was going to be a bigger issue than even a typical high profile police killing.

S5: John Collins, thank you so much for joining me. Thank you. John Collins is a reporter with Minnesota Public Radio and that is the show What Next is produced by Daniel Hewitt, Alan Schwarz, Kamal Dilshad Davis Land and Mary Wilson. We could help each and every day from Alicia Montgomery and Allison Benedikt. And I’m Mary Harris. You can track me down on Twitter. I’m at Mary’s Desk. Meanwhile, I’ll catch you back here tomorrow.