‘Hail Mary time’ for Derek Chauvin’s defence: Legal experts

The prosecution in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin made a strong case for conviction that puts the defence in a “Hail Mary” situation after weeks of expert testimony and repeated plays of the video showing George Floyd’s death, lawyers have told Al Jazeera.

The prosecutorial team, comprised of two assistant prosecutors Matthew Frank and Erin Eldridge and outside lawyers Jerry Blackwell and Steve Schleicher, rested their case on Tuesday, allowing for defence attorney Eric Nelson to present Chauvin’s side.

“Overall, they should be very proud of their presentation. The experts they chose were just magnificent,” Mike Padden, a lawyer with 34 years’ experience trying cases in Minneapolis, told Al Jazeera.

The defence’s case is based around the theory that Floyd’s use of drugs, not Chauvin’s restraint, was ultimately the cause of death. The defence is also expected to attempt to prove Chauvin’s restraint of Floyd was part of his training as a police officer.

The prosecution called doctors, including cardiologist and pulmonologists who specialise in hearts and lungs, respectively, to dispute this.

They also called use-of-force experts and current Minneapolis police officers, including the police chief, to testify that Chauvin’s restraint of Floyd was not part of his training.

Third-degree murder

Gene Rossi, a former US prosecutor now in private practice, said the prosecution has proven its case for third-degree murder and manslaughter.

Rossi predicted, however, the jury will likely acquit Chauvin on the second-degree murder charge which requires a level of premeditation to kill that is not evident in the events that led to Floyd’s death

“If I’m a police officer, I don’t want to myself found guilty of either manslaughter or any type of murder count,” Rossi told Al Jazeera. “I think he can be easily found guilty”.

An image of George Floyd’s arrest is displayed on a screen on the ninth day of the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, on April 8, 2021, in this courtroom sketch [File: Jane Rosenberg/Reuters]

While the defence is still presenting its case, Rossi said the first three witnesses did not help Chauvin.

Debbie Hines, a former Maryland state prosecutor now in private practice, said she thought the prosecution presented its case very well.

“The prosecutors did a stellar, phenomenal job in the case,” Hines said.

“They wanted to make sure they dotted all I’s and crossed all T’s and I think that they did. They presented a clean case without any issues,” Hines told Al Jazeera.

But it is not a “slam dunk” that Chauvin will be convicted because of the “racial overtones” of a “white police officer being tried for the death of a Black man”, Hines said.

The defence “has an easier case because all the defence has to do is convince one of those 12 jurors that they have created a reasonable doubt that Derek Chauvin was not a significant factor leading to the death of George Floyd,” Hines said.

“The defence will do everything to try to demean the character of George Floyd. They will say that he used drugs. They will say that he had been arrested before, that he had heart disease, that he had signs of a potential overdose,” she said.

‘Hail Mary’

Padden, for his part, recognised the needs of the defence to instil doubt, but he was not sure how Nelson will manage. The video of Floyd’s death, which was repeatedly played to the jury, “is so damning, I think you could make a reasonable argument that the video alone establishes the elements you need for third-degree murder”.

Activists hold signs admonishing the police as they march on the tenth day of Chauvin’s trial, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on April 9, 2021 [File: Nicholas Pfosi/Reuters]

But Padden added the key to instilling that doubt will be Chauvin going on the stand, which could open him up to damaging cross-examination from the prosecution. The defence has yet to say if Chauvin will testify.

But, “he doesn’t have a choice”, Padden said.

“This is Hail Mary time. That’s how bad it is. That’s how far behind they are. Will he be hammered on cross-examination? Yes. Does he have to testify? Yes.”



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