A lawyer for former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin made his case on Wednesday for why his client’s three convictions in the murder of George Floyd should be overturned, which the state vehemently rebutted.
Speaking before a three-member panel on the Minnesota Court of Appeals, lawyer William Mohrman argued that extensive pre-trial publicity made it impossible for Chauvin to get a fair trial in 2021 and said the main remedy they are seeking is a new one.
“Our primary argument here is that this case could not be tried in Minneapolis because of the pretrial publicity which was pervasive … and also just the physical pressure on the courthouse,” Mohrman said.
Former Acting U.S. Solicitor General Neal Katyal, representing the state of Minnesota, countered the defense’s claims by calling Chauvin’s trial “one of the most transparent and thorough … in our nation’s history.”
He said that many of the arguments before the appeals court “do not come close” to justifying a reversal, and that even if they did, “the evidence of Chauvin’s guilt was captured on video for the world to see.”
Each side had 15 minutes to make an opening statement and respond to questions from the judges, after which Mohrman had about five minutes to give a rebuttal.
The panel said it will issue an opinion within 90 days, meaning we can expect a decision by mid-April.
Chauvin will spend decades in prison either way
Floyd, who was Black, died during an attempted arrest on May 25, 2020 after Chauvin, who is white, pinned him to the ground with his knee on his neck for more than 9 minutes. His death was captured in widely-circulated bystander video and sparked protests against racism and police brutality across the U.S. and around the world.
The following June — after jurors found Chauvin guilty of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter — Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill sentenced him to 22 ½ years in state prison. A federal judge later sentenced Chauvin to 21 years prison for violating Floyd’s civil rights.
Chauvin is serving both sentences concurrently in a federal prison in Arizona. He waived his right to appeal under the federal plea deal, which is why he is pursuing it in state court only.
Because of the differences in parole eligibility between the Minnesota prison system and the federal system, he is poised to spend nearly three more years behind bars than he would have with only the state murder conviction, the Associated Press explains.
In other words, even if Chauvin were to win an appeal in state court, he would still serve a considerable amount of time in federal prison. Still, the AP notes, a successful appeal could set a precedent for future cases involving police officers.
The appeal has been in the works for a while
They are asking the Minnesota Court of Appeals to either throw out his conviction and send his case back to the county, reverse the result and order a new trial in another venue or order Chauvin a reduced sentence.
They say issues with the trial include the considerable pretrial publicity, the city’s $27 million settlement with Floyd’s family (which was announced during the jury selection process), unrest over a separate police killing in a Minneapolis suburb during that time and unprecedented courthouse security.
They are also alleging prosecutorial misconduct, mishandling of witnesses and the judge’s exclusion of evidence that could have been favorable to Chauvin. Chauvin’s defense team has long argued that the trial should have been held somewhere else.
Prosecutors have in turn stated that Chauvin did receive a fair trial and a just sentence, contending that a change of venue wouldn’t have made a difference and noting that the judge took steps to ensure the selection of impartial jurors and shield them from outside influences.
The hearing focused mostly on venue and jury issues
Wednesday’s hearing offered both sides an opportunity to highlight key pieces of their arguments and answer judges’ questions in real time.
Some of the issues that came up involved allegations of “cumulative testimony” by the prosecution, the nuances of presumptive prejudice and the permissibility of the third-degree murder conviction. Much of the back-and-forth centered on one juror, referred to as Juror 52.
Chauvin’s team is again pushing for what’s known as a Schwartz hearing to probe alleged bias, because they say the juror didn’t honestly answer a question on the jury selection questionnaire about whether he had attended any protests against police brutality after Floyd’s death.
The juror did not mention his participation in a Washington, D.C. march honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., at which Floyd’s death was mentioned but not the central focus. Mohrman said if he had answered otherwise, counsel would have asked more questions before deciding to seat him.
One judge on the panel took issue with that, saying the questionnaire used the word “protest” rather than “rally,” and that even the defense’s brief seemed to acknowledge the difference because it did not use those words synonymously.
He added — and Katyal also argued later — that Juror 52 was truthful in all of his other answers, including his views on discrimination in the Minneapolis Police Department, Black Lives Matter, law enforcement in general and his ability to render an impartial verdict.
“It’s not as if Juror 52 was some closeted trojan horse trying to hide his views, he was as forthright as possible time and again,” Katyal said, adding that the standard requires proving that he “necessarily lied” while, in his view, the evidence shows “at most … an honest mistake.”
Mohrman said a Schwarz hearing will not be necessary if the court decides to send the case back to the district court, either to hold a new hearing or choose another venue for one.
The venue was another topic discussed at relative length.
Mohrman stated that trial should have been held somewhere else in the state, citing jurors’ self-expressed concerns for their safety and the fact that the governor had deployed the National Guard throughout the city days in advance of the verdict out of concerns about riots of Chauvin was acquitted.
He said the jurors had a personal stake in the outcome of the case because they lived in the community where the riots occurred, and believes it would have been a different situation if the trial were held outside of Minneapolis.
Katyal disagreed, saying that “if pre-trial publicity is going to blanket the state then there is no advantage to shifting the venue.”
He added that Cahill had already said on the record that having the trial in Hennepin County would be safer and actually make the the jury more impartial, because there were still fears of civil unrest outside the city and security precautions would actually stand out more.
The panel pushed back and asked questions of both parties throughout.
And while their ruling could be months away, they stressed repeatedly that theirs is an “error correcting court” that defers to the district court’s discretion — which they said is very broad in many of the areas up for discussion.