Murder trial in George Floyd's killing tests how much — if anything — will change in U.S.

·7 min read
Murder trial in George Floyd's killing tests how much — if anything — will change in U.S.
A mural of George Floyd stands in Minneapolis near the site of where he was killed by police in May 2020. Jury selection for the trial of Derek Chauvin is expected to begin this week. (Sylvia Thomson/CBC - image credit)
A mural of George Floyd stands in Minneapolis near the site of where he was killed by police in May 2020. Jury selection for the trial of Derek Chauvin is expected to begin this week. (Sylvia Thomson/CBC - image credit)

Bishop Richard Howell Jr. thundered from his North Minneapolis pulpit Sunday that the city "is under great stress right now" as the George Floyd murder trial tests how much, if anything, will change in the U.S. almost 10 months after the killing sparked global outrage.

Jury selection for the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, whose knee pressing on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes was captured on graphic video last May, is expected to get underway this week.

"This officer coldly refused to respond to his plea and kept his knee on Mr. Floyd's neck, snuffing the very life out of him," preached Howell as his congregants shouted out their acknowledgment.

"A senseless, cold, hideous act of hate, bigotry and brutality."

Howell said he is opening his church to those who may struggle watching the live-streamed trial.

WATCH | Security high in advance of trial in George Floyd's killing:

Benjamin Crump, the Floyd family's lawyer, told CBC News that the upcoming case is "one of the most important civil rights cases in the last 100 years. It is the Emmett Till of today."

Till, a 14-year-old Black teenager, was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after allegedly flirting with a white woman in a grocery store. His killers were swiftly acquitted.

"Mississippi or Minnesota, I don't see much difference," Deborah Watts, one of Till's cousins, said at a Minneapolis news conference on Friday surrounded by dozens of families whose relatives have been shot or killed by police.

"Emmett Till was murdered in August 1955, and we are still fighting for justice. Something is wrong with that ... we have not made much progress."

Last summer, millions of people protested across the U.S. against Floyd's killing in scenes not witnessed since the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Protests against racial injustice and police brutality spread to Canada and many cities internationally.

WATCH | Lawyer for George Floyd's family discusses upcoming trial:

Crump said the video of Floyd — handcuffed, face down on the pavement, gasping for breath — is "ocular proof" of a man being "tortured to death by the very people who are supposed to protect and defend."

"The world had gotten used to seeing reality TV, but we were still shocked," he told CBC News from his office in Tallahassee, Fla.

The criminal trial against Chauvin will be prosecuted by the state of Minnesota. While Crump is not directly involved in this case, its outcome will inevitably impact the family's civil case against the city of Minneapolis and the four police officers involved in Floyd's death.

Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter, with the potential addition of a third-degree murder charge. The Minnesota Court of Appeals last week ordered the judge in the case to reconsider a request by prosecutors to reinstate a third-degree murder charge, which means jury selection will not begin until at least Tuesday.

Three other officers involved in Floyd's death go on trial in August.

Increased security around courthouse

Cameras in the courtroom will capture the trial and live stream it for broadcast on some TV channels — a first for Minnesota. The trial is being compared to that of the Los Angeles police officers who were acquitted in the beating of Rodney King 30 years ago, as well as the O.J. Simpson murder trial, which commanded large TV audiences.

"The killing of George Floyd by Officer Chauvin is akin for many Americans to some type of public lynching, the likes of which we haven't seen for decades," said Kami Chavis, a law professor at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.

"I don't want people to underestimate the power and the importance of this case and what might happen. It's a huge signal, I think, to law enforcement about what they can and can't do."

The Hennepin County courthouse and many federal buildings in Minneapolis are barricaded and surrounded by concertina wire ahead of the trial.
The Hennepin County courthouse and many federal buildings in Minneapolis are barricaded and surrounded by concertina wire ahead of the trial.(Sylvia Thomson/CBC)

The Hennepin County courthouse in Minneapolis is now surrounded by three rings of cement barriers, three-metre high fencing and concertina wire. The state has allocated $36 million US to security and has activated the Minnesota National Guard. Staff in the building, which includes the county government office, have been told to stay home.

The courtroom has been modified to accommodate physical distancing due to COVID-19, restricting the number of people allowed inside. One person per family, four each for the defence and prosecution teams and two media members are allowed in at a time. Masks are mandatory, but cannot have anything written on them.

Challenges in selecting a jury

Three weeks have been allotted to jury selection as lawyers try to screen potential jurors for bias, a complicated task in such a highly publicized case.

Activists in Minneapolis say Chauvin is the fourth police officer to be prosecuted in the death of a citizen in Minnesota. Two were acquitted, while one other was convicted in the death of a white woman.

"For the most part, officers are pretty sympathetic figures in a lot of these cases. And juries give a great deal of deference to what police officers do. So that will be a challenge as well," Chavis said.

The courtroom for Chauvin's trial has been modified to allow for physical distancing due to COVID-19.
The courtroom for Chauvin's trial has been modified to allow for physical distancing due to COVID-19.(Hennepin County)

One of those acquittals involved the death of Philando Castile, who was shot and killed by police in July 2016 in a St. Paul suburb while stopped at a traffic light with his girlfriend and a four-year-old in the car. The officer, who was charged with second-degree manslaughter, was acquitted — but fired from the force.

Castile's mother, Valerie Castile, sent a message to legislators during Friday's emotional news conference.

"We're gonna have to be brutally honest about what's going on in this country", she said. "To the state of Minnesota: we are not going to shut up, we are not going to sit down, we are going to stand in unity, and we're going to bring it to you".

'Many other people were murdered before George Floyd'

The death of Floyd, who was originally from Texas, has propelled the fight against anti-Black racism and police brutality back into the forefront. Artwork of the 46-year-old's face has popped up on billboards, buildings and in museums, and his death has become a lightning rod for thousands of Black families whose relatives have been stopped, shot or killed by police in their communities.

"What happened after George Floyd's death — the riots, the uproar — did not happen as a result of one man's life," Toshira Garraway, founder of Families Supporting Families Against Police Violence, told CBC News. "It happened because many other people were murdered before George Floyd. And nothing happened. Nothing changed."

Garraway's fiancé, Justin Teigen, died following a run-in with police 12 years ago. According to St. Paul police, Teigen was fleeing police and did not die in their custody.

A mural showing his face along with dozens of others, including Floyd's, covers the side of a building in North Minneapolis. It serves as a visual reminder of the more than 400 people who've been killed in altercations with police in Minnesota in the last 20 years, according to the Communities United Against Police Brutality advocacy group.

"If George Floyd did something wrong, if all the rest of our loved ones did something wrong, [police] were to arrest them. Not take their lives, not destroy our lives," Garraway said.

Toshira Garraway, who founded Families Supporting Families Against Police Violence, stands in front of a mural of Minnesotans who have died after police encounters.
Toshira Garraway, who founded Families Supporting Families Against Police Violence, stands in front of a mural of Minnesotans who have died after police encounters.(Sylvia Thomson/CBC)

Crump said the Floyd family is "very, very anxious" and wants "a conviction to the fullest extent of the law." He said anything less has the potential to unleash more unrest.

Violence and riots last summer in the days after Floyd's killing burned blocks of the city, with damage estimated at $350 million US. Minneapolis is bracing against heightened tensions when the case goes to the jury, which is expected to happen late April or May.

"Historically in America, the police have not been held accountable for killing African Americans," said Crump, who has taken on dozens of cases where Black men and women have been shot or injured by police.

"The George Floyd case will be a referendum on how far America has come in this quest for equal justice under the law."