A jury has found former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of second-degree murder in the most high-profile US case in decades involving accusations of police misconduct against Black Americans.
Crowds outside the court erupted with cheers on hearing the verdict, which was unanimous.
The sentencing is due in eight weeks and the former officer faces up to 40 years in jail.
Chauvin showed no signs of emotion as he listened to the verdict being read out over several minutes, although he was wearing a mask.
The jury deliberated for four hours on Monday (local time) and resumed on Tuesday morning, discussing the case for 10 hours in total. The jury’s verdict was read out slightly after 7am Australian time.
Jurors had to reach a unanimous verdict on each charge to convict or acquit. A single hold-out would have resulted in a mistrial, although the state could then try Chauvin again.
The 12 sequestered jurors considered three weeks of testimony from 45 witnesses including bystanders, police officials and medical experts along with hours of video evidence.
Chauvin, who is white, pleaded not guilty to second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree “depraved mind” murder and second-degree manslaughter. He was found guilty on all counts unanimously for kneeling on the neck of a dying George Floyd during an arrest last May.
A substantial causal factor
All three charges required that jurors found Chauvin’s acts were a “substantial causal factor” in Mr Floyd’s death but none required they find he intended to kill Floyd.
In an arrest captured on video, Chauvin pushed his knee into the neck of Mr Floyd, a 46-year-old handcuffed black man, for more than nine minutes outside the grocery shop where Mr Floyd had been accused of buying cigarettes with a fake $US20 banknote.
Mr Floyd’s relatives, many of them travelling from Texas, have taken turns sitting in a single chair reserved for them in the courtroom.
President prayed for “right verdict”
US President Joe Biden spoke to Mr Floyd’s family on Monday “to check in with them and also share that the family was in his prayers”, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said.
With the jurors sequestered, Mr Biden said at the White House he was praying for the “right verdict” in the most high-profile US case involving accusations of police misconduct in decades.
Angela Harrelson, an aunt of Mr Floyd, wrote in a text message the family was “waiting nervously” for the verdict.
The case hinged on whether the jury believed the prosecution argument that Chauvin used excessive, and therefore illegal, force that killed Mr Floyd.
The defence countered that Chauvin behaved as any “reasonable police officer” would, and sought to raise doubts about the cause of Mr Floyd’s death, saying heart disease or even the exhaust fumes from the nearby police car may have been factors.
The courthouse was surrounded by high barricades and guarded by National Guard troops.
Many downtown businesses boarded up their windows for fear of a repeat of the violent street clashes that unfolded in 2020 between police in riot gear and protesters, some of whom set fire to a police precinct house and damaged nearby property.
Chauvin, a white man, is the former Minneapolis police officer who kneeled on the neck of Mr Floyd, a black man, for nine minutes and 29 seconds on May 25.
During Mr Floyd’s final moments alive, he cried out for his mother and gasped “I can’t breathe” before his body went limp.
The chilling phrase is a slogan for the global Black Lives Matter movement, with the quote plastered on signs at anti-racism protests around the globe.
Here are the key points the jurors had to consider:
During the arrest of Mr Floyd, who was suspected of using a fake $20 note at a nearby shop, Chauvin knelt on his neck in the street for more than nine minutes.
After repeating “I can’t breathe” more than 20 times, Mr Floyd, 46, died.
Once Mr Floyd stopped resisting – and especially after he begged for air – Chauvin should have stopped kneeling on his neck, the prosecutors said.
Law enforcement officials argued Chauvin violated police policy by using excessive force, and by failing to provide medical care once Mr Floyd became unresponsive.
Chauvin’s lawyers disagreed.
They said in the heat of the moment, it was reasonable for Chauvin to kneel on Mr Floyd’s neck for nine-and-a-half minutes.
That’s because Mr Floyd had already resisted getting into the back of a police car.
Plus, the lawyers argued, it was well known among police officers that some suspects who do not seem dangerous can quickly become aggressive.
“A reasonable police officer understands the intensity of the struggle,” defence attorney Eric Nelson said.
Mr Nelson suggested the crowd of bystanders – who became louder and louder – could have made it harder for Chauvin to provide medical care, move Mr Floyd from his position, or recognise signs of distress.
Mr Nelson questioned why Chauvin would deliberately break police rules when he knew he was being filmed by bystanders and body-worn police cameras.
Mr Floyd died because of his long-standing drug addiction and an underlying heart condition, Chauvin’s lawyers said.
They pointed to a toxicology report that found fentanyl and methamphetamine in the 46-year-old’s system.
In an emotional testimony, Mr Floyd’s girlfriend Courtney Ross admitted they became addicted to opioids together, after being legally prescribed medication for chronic pain.
One medical expert added he saw no evidence that Chauvin’s knee hurt Mr Floyd in any way.
However, several other medical experts called on by the prosecution slammed the notion that drugs were to blame for Mr Floyd’s death.
They said it was clear Mr Floyd died from a lack of oxygen.
His behaviour did not look like that of a typical fentanyl overdose victim, they said.
Had he overdosed on fentanyl, they said, Mr Floyd would have likely slipped out of consciousness without a fight rather than yelling and begging for air.
They said his breathing rate would’ve been much slower before the incident, too.
Several witnesses cried as they recounted the arrest, with some saying they have been tortured by guilt for not intervening.
In one particularly emotional scene, 61-year-old bystander Charles McMillian told the jury he had urged Mr Floyd to get into the police car, but Mr Floyd replied that he couldn’t.
He broke down in tears while describing what it was like to see the arrest, especially the moment when Mr Floyd called out “mama”, a few minutes before he lost consciousness.
Chauvin, who faces up to 40 years in prison, had denied three charges:
- Manslaughter, when someone unintentionally causes another person’s death
- Third-degree murder, when an individual has acted in a way that has endangered one or more people, ending in death
- Second-degree murder, when the act that led to someone’s death could have been intentional or unintentional. The maximum sentence is 40 years in prison.
Whatever happens to Chauvin, Mr Floyd will be immortalised in history books as a symbol of racial injustice.
Only time will tell whether his story, which captured the world’s attention, will help the US turn a new page on police brutality.