Editor’s Note: Elie Honig is a CNN legal analyst and former federal and state prosecutor. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN. Watch Honig answer readers’ questions on “CNN Newsroom with Jim Acosta” on weekends.
As dramatic as the evidence has been in the ongoing trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who pleaded not guilty to charges of manslaughter, second-degree murder and third-degree murder in the death of George Floyd, the case could ultimately come down to cold, hard science. While Chauvin’s defense team has argued that his actions did not medically cause Floyd’s death, the prosecution thus far has cut through the noise and the medical jargon to make a compelling – though not quite ironclad – case arguing that Chauvin is, indeed, legally responsible for Floyd’s death.
I’ve presented testimony from medical examiners at murder trials, and I know firsthand that it can be fraught. Medical examiners often use dense, technical medical jargon to state their findings, so juries sometimes have difficulty following along; it’s the prosecutor’s job to ensure that the examiner speaks in plain English, to the extent possible, to explain his or her conclusions. And testimony from medical examiners, naturally, can be gruesome. Juries tend to recoil at the vivid descriptions of death and its aftermath.
By and large, however, the prosecutors in the Chauvin trial presented their expert medical witnesses in an accessible and compelling manner. The witnesses were able to translate their own scientific findings into readily understood testimony, and they appeared to engage directly with the jury. Most memorably, Dr. Martin Tobin, a pulmonologist and critical care physician, had the jurors following along with him, at one point feeling their own necks, as he described the human cardiopulmonary system to them.
Indeed, heading into the medical causation portion of the trial, prosecutors appeared to have a strong basis to prove that Chauvin caused Floyd’s death. Exhibit A was the indelible, grotesque video of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes. While the video itself does not establish a specific scientific conclusion, jurors have every right to draw their own common sense inferences from it. Anyone who has a basic layperson’s understanding of the human body can readily understand how nearly nine and a half minutes of concentrated pressure on the neck can kill a person.
Over the past few days, prosecutors have aimed to bolster that intuitive notion with science. In his testimony, Tobin, for example, estimated that Chauvin placed around 87 to 91.5 pounds of his body weight on Floyd’s neck, depending on whether the officer’s feet were touching the ground as he knelt.
Prosecutors also encountered, but mostly cleared, obstacles. First, it would likely have appeared to an ordinary layperson that two medical examiners had offered differing accounts of what caused Floyd’s death. The Hennepin County Medical Examiner, Dr. Andrew Baker, concluded that Floyd died because of “cardiopulmonary arrest” that occurred during “law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression.” But a private examiner hired by Floyd’s family found that Floyd died of “asphyxiation from sustained pressure.”
To any ordinary non-doctor (like me – or, more importantly, the jurors), those sound like two different conclusions. Which is it: Did Floyd die of “cardiopulmonary arrest” or “asphyxiation”? The prosecution quickly clarified the issue, however, as its medical experts made clear: “Cardiopulmonary arrest” is not the same thing as a heart attack, but rather refers more generally to the stoppage of the brain and heart. That stoppage can result from oxygen deprivation – which is another way of saying “asphyxiation.” In other words, while the phrases “cardiopulmonary arrest” and “asphyxiation” look different on the surface, they could well describe the same circumstances that led to Floyd’s death.
Another problem surfaced with the testimony of Baker, who conducted the autopsy on Floyd’s body. Baker – like Tobin, the expert pulmonologist, and medical examiner Dr. Lindsey Thomas before him – was firm and consistent in testifying that Chauvin’s compression of Floyd’s neck was the primary cause of death. However, while Tobin and Thomas affirmatively ruled out Floyd’s pre-existing medical conditions (including heart disease) and drug use as a cause of death, Baker concluded that they were contributing factors. That opening will give the defense just a reed to cling to in arguing to the jury that Chauvin is not responsible for Floyd’s death.
But that reed is a thin one. Keep in mind this crucial legal concept: The prosecution need not prove that Chauvin was the only cause of Floyd’s death, or even the predominant cause. Under Minnesota law, the prosecution must prove only that Chauvin’s conduct was one substantial causal factor to Floyd’s death. In other words, Chauvin can still be found guilty if his conduct was only one of several factors that contributed to Floyd’s death. So, even if the jury accepts Baker’s conclusion that Floyd’s medical conditions and drug use contributed to the death (which was, according to Baker, primarily caused by Chauvin’s actions), the evidence is still sufficient to support a guilty verdict.
Now, your questions:
Anna (Missouri): Can the other police officers who were on the scene and charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter choose to have a bench trial rather than a jury trial? Is there a possibility they’ll be denied that right?
The Sixth Amendment of the Constitution gives every criminal defendant in a felony case the right to be tried by a jury. But under the Minnesota Rules of Criminal Procedure, a defendant can waive that right and instead request to be tried before a judge, who will issue the verdict on the defendant’s guilt or non-guilt (usually, juries determine guilt and then judges impose sentence). This is not unusual; many jurisdictions, including federal courts, give a defendant the option to request trial by judge rather than jury.
The judge must first inform the defendant of his right to a jury trial, and must ensure that the defendant understands that he is voluntarily giving up that right. If the defendant still wishes to proceed, then the judge has the power either to grant or deny the defendant’s request to waive a jury trial. Such requests are uncommon, but defendants do occasionally seek to be tried by a judge if they fear that a jury might be inclined or to convict based on the facts of the case.
Nebiyu (Massachusetts): How long will Derek Chauvin’s sentence be, if he is convicted?
Chauvin faces three charges, each carrying a different maximum penalty. If he is convicted on the second-degree murder charge against him, he could serve up to 40 years in prison. If he is convicted on the third-degree murder charge, he faces a maximum of 25 years imprisonment. And if he is convicted of second-degree manslaughter, he could be sentenced to a maximum of 10 years in prison. Keep in mind that the jury will consider each charge separately. So the jury could convict Chauvin on all, some, or none of the three charges.