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Appeals court upholds Chauvin conviction for Floyd killing

The Minnesota Court of Appeals found no abuses of discretion in Derek Chauvin's trial for the murder of George Floyd, and declined to rule on other issues it deemed irrelevant.

ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) — Minnesota’s appeals court roundly panned former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s appeal of his murder conviction Monday morning, rejecting several procedural challenges to his widely viewed trial for the murder of George Floyd. 

Chauvin was convicted of second- and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in April of 2021, just under a year after a video showing him kneeling on the neck and back of Floyd went viral and sparked civil unrest around the United States and the globe.

The former officer and his attorney William Mohrman of the conservative firm Mohrman, Kaardal and Erickson raised a number of issues with Chauvin’s trial, including Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill’s repeated denials of motions to change the trial’s venue, his handling of claims of juror misconduct, his exclusion of certain pieces of evidence and his crafting of jury instructions.

They found success on none of those issues at the Minnesota Court of Appeals. 

“Police officers undoubtedly have a challenging, difficult and sometimes dangerous job,” Judge Peter Reyes wrote in the conclusion of the court’s decision. “However, no one is above the law. When they commit a crime, they must be held accountable just as those individuals that they lawfully apprehend…. Chauvin crossed that line here when he used unreasonable force on Floyd.” 

Chauvin’s appeal invoked a number of issues first raised by attorney Eric Nelson during trial, notably Cahill’s repeated denials of requests for a change of venue despite substantial publicity of the case and his denial of a request for a so-called Schwartz hearing on potential juror misconduct after one juror allegedly failed to disclose participation in a 2020 march on Washington, D.C., honoring Martin Luther King Jr. in his juror questionnaire and another juror allegedly expressed concerns for her safety related to the trial’s results. 

Reyes found those arguments lacking, noting that Mohrman had alluded to, but not addressed, these issues in his briefing and that the juror’s participation in the March on Washington did not contradict his “no” answer to the question of whether he had participated in “any of the demonstrations or marches against police brutality that took place in Minneapolis after [] Floyd’s death.” 

“Chauvin was given 18 peremptory strikes during the jury selection and had three remaining, which he could have used to prevent juror 52 from serving,” Reyes pointed out. “He did not do so.” Refusing a Schwartz hearing, the judge wrote, was therefore not an abuse of Cahill’s discretion. 

Reyes devoted much more space in his order to the venue question, but came to the same conclusion. Chauvin, he wrote, had not shown that pretrial publicity had created actual prejudice by the jury.

“Chauvin claims that ‘numerous news stories said Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck and Floyd could not breath.’ However, the record, including the videos, shows that Chauvin had one knee on Floyd’s back and one knee on his neck,” the ruling states. “While Chauvin identifies the extent of the publicity, he fails to analyze its content or explain why the publicity prejudiced him.” (Emphasis in original.)

The judge also paid note to Cahill’s finding that the trial would likely generate publicity no matter where and when it was held, and to his orders that jurors be anonymous and questioned individually during selection. Reyes also pointed, once again, to Chauvin’s unused peremptory challenges as a signal that he was satisfied with the selected jury. 

Chauvin also sought to challenge his third-degree murder charge, citing a decision made by the Minnesota Supreme Court during his trial in the case of another killing by a Minneapolis police officer, Mohamed Noor. The state high court overturned Noor’s third-degree murder conviction on the grounds that “depraved-mind” third-degree murder requires that a defendant’s conduct endanger more than one person, rather than being specifically directed at the murder victim. 

The appeals court, however, opted out of considering Chauvin’s challenge to the third-degree murder charge, finding that Cahill’s decisions not to adjudicate the lesser-included charge or sentence Chauvin received for it were enough to warrant passing the issue over. 

As for Chauvin’s second-degree murder conviction, the appeals court considered, and rejected, two of Chauvin’s contentions as to the nature of the charge. Mohrman argued that convicting a police officer of felony murder based on the underlying crime of third-degree assault requires strict liability, and that because officers are authorized to use force in arresting a resisting suspect, such a conviction is impossible. 

The appeals court disagreed with both of these propositions, pointing to a number of Supreme Court decisions to bolster its finding that third-degree assault requires an actor to intentionally apply force to a victim. Because Chauvin’s force was found to be unreasonable, the appeals court concluded, his conduct was also not protected by his position as a police officer. 

Chauvin is currently in federal custody, having taken a plea deal with federal prosecutors for civil rights violations related to Floyd’s death and to a prior incident in which he allegedly badly beat a restrained teenager with a flashlight. His 21-year federal sentence is being served concurrently with the 22-year sentence imposed by Cahill a few months prior. 

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office prosecuted Chauvin and defended his convictions before the appeals court, issued a brief statement on the decision Monday morning. 

“I am grateful for the decision of the Court of Appeals, and grateful we have a system where everyone, no matter how egregious their offense, is entitled to due process and fair treatment. The Court’s decision today shows once again no one is above the law — and no one is beneath it,” Ellison said in the statement. “Today, my thoughts are today with the family of George Floyd and the communities that have suffered because of his death. We cannot bring Floyd back, but I hope today’s decision brings another measure of justice.”

Mohrman, meanwhile, expressed disappointment with the decision in an email Monday afternoon. While he had not yet been able to discuss the decision with Chauvin, he said, next steps for the litigation would include petitioning Minnesota's Supreme Court and potentially the U.S. Supreme Court for review, particularly on the change-of-venue issue.

Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights, Criminal, Regional, Trials

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