Seventeen complaints filed with Minneapolis police about Derek Chauvin. Six times in which prosecutors say Chauvin used force against arrestees. George Floyd’s 2007 arrest for aggravated robbery.
The jury considering murder and manslaughter charges against Chauvin won’t hear about any of them. And their verdict may be influenced as much by what they don’t know as what they do.
Chauvin, a white former Minneapolis police officer, is accused of killing Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, by pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck as he lay handcuffed on the ground.
In the run-up to the trial, both sides sought to introduce evidence about Chauvin and Floyd’s past actions. Prosecutors wanted to introduce eight incidents for Chauvin. Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill allowed two of them.
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The defense wanted to bring up two arrests of Floyd, including one in Harris County, Texas in 2007 that resulted in a conviction for aggravated robbery. Cahill allowed only a portion of Floyd’s 2019 drug-related arrest in Minneapolis.
It’s common for judges to make such rulings on what evidence can be introduced in a trial. The court wants to ensure the jury doesn’t punish a defendant for prior “bad acts,” as they’re called. Jurors must evaluate whether Chauvin is guilty of what he is charged with: third- and second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
In criminal prosecutions, wrongful acts generally aren’t admissible unless prosecutors can demonstrate that they implicate the defendant, the incidents are important to the case, and they won’t unfairly prejudice the jury against the defendant.
So while police department records show 18 complaints filed against Chauvin over the course of his 19-year career with Minneapolis police, just one will be introduced at trial.
Cahill’s rulings “make sense overall,” said Ted Sampsell-Jones, a professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in neighboring St. Paul.
The judge is “letting in the most similar incidents for both sides, but overall he’s limiting the inquiry — trying to keep the parties and the jury focused on the charged incident,” Sampsell-Jones said.
“This isn’t supposed to devolve into a free-ranging inquisition of Floyd’s past, or Chauvin’s,” he said.
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Jury won’t hear about six incidents in which Chauvin restrained arrestees
Prosecutors wanted to introduce eight incidents in which Chauvin used force while on duty or was involved in an incident in which another officer did.
Six were deemed inadmissible by Cahill, who wrote in a court filing that the incidents weren’t similar enough to the Floyd incident. The judge concluded that prosecutors were improperly trying to show Chauvin’s propensity to resort to unreasonable force.
Cahill based his decisions on what the jury would learn from the evidence and a review of the prosecution and defense’s filings.
Those six incidents spanned six years. In 2014, Chauvin placed his body weight on the upper body and head of a man to handcuff him, according to prosecutors.
In February 2015, Chauvin tried to restrain a man by putting pressure on his lingual artery, which is below the chin bone, prosecutors wrote. Chauvin then pushed the man against a wall and applied a neck restraint. Once the man was face-down on the ground, Chauvin handcuffed him and kept him there until backup arrived.
In another incident in April 2016, Chauvin restrained a man who would not follow instructions, placing his hands around the man’s neck and applying pressure to both sides, according to prosecutors.
The officer forced the man backward onto the sidewalk, handcuffed him and walked him to a squad car. At the time, a small crowd of “concerned citizens” gathered to watch, prosecutors wrote. The man complained of asthma, and paramedics were called.
Eric Nelson, Chauvin’s attorney, objected to allowing these prior acts, saying they weren’t similar to what happened with Floyd, and they “were noncriminal incidents of Mr. Chauvin acting in his duties as a Minneapolis Police officer.”
All the incidents involved “resistance from or a struggle with a suspect; some involved Mr. Chauvin using his body weight to control an arrestee; some involved a neck restraint,” Nelson argued. “This is simply insufficient to show a marked similarity between the proffered incidents and the charged offenses.”
Judge said prosecutors were trying to paint Chauvin as a ‘thumper’
In September 2017, Chauvin responded to a domestic assault call with another officer and tried to arrest a 14-year-old boy. When the boy resisted, Chauvin applied a neck restraint and rolled him onto his stomach.
With his body pinning the boy to the floor, Chauvin stayed in the same position “beyond the point when such force was needed under the circumstances,” prosecutors wrote.
In a March 2019 incident, Chauvin told a man to move away from a person reporting a stolen vehicle to him and another officer. When the man refused, Chauvin walked over and grabbed him. The man pulled away, “flailing his arms and struggling with the other officer,” prosecutors wrote. Chauvin sprayed Mace at the man’s face.
The other officer told the man to lie on the ground, but he kneeled instead. Chauvin applied a neck restraint, forced him to the ground and sat on the man’s back, pinning him so he could be handcuffed.
“Chauvin restrained the male in this position beyond the point when such force was needed or reasonable under the circumstances,” the prosecution argued.
But the defense said Minneapolis Police Department supervisors “found Mr. Chauvin’s application of force to be in conformity with his MPD training, authorized by law and MPD policy, and reasonable.”
In a July 2019 incident, Chauvin and another officer responded to a domestic assault. When the male suspect dropped his arms to his side, Chauvin grew concerned about his access to knives, prosecutors wrote. Chauvin grabbed one of the man’s arms and kicked his lower midsection to back the man away.
Because Chauvin thought the man had tensed up, prosecutors wrote, he applied a neck restraint. The man made a brief snoring noise that indicated he had gone unconscious, and Chauvin handcuffed him.
A supervisor responded to the scene and deemed Chauvin’s force “reasonable, authorized, and appropriate under the circumstances,” the defense wrote.
Prosecutors argued these incidents showed Chauvin regularly resorted to force, even when it wasn’t necessary.
“In the State’s view,” they wrote, “Chauvin operates in disregard for the particular circumstances of a given situation in determining appropriate reasonable force and simply fully restrains the suspect with no regard for their well-being until he can turn them over to someone else.”
“The real purpose for which the State seeks to introduce evidence of eight prior incidents … is simply to depict Chauvin to the jury as a ‘thumper,’ an officer who knowingly and willingly relishes ‘mixing it up’ with suspects and routinely escalates situations and engages in the use of unreasonable force,” the judge wrote.
Cahill ruled that any value of introducing those six incidents to prove Chauvin’s guilt in Floyd’s death would be outweighed by the potential to unfairly prejudice the jury.
Jurors will hear about two incidents with Chauvin
The two incidents Cahill did allow to be introduced at trial involve one in August 2015 in which Chauvin appeared to see how to properly care for an arrestee by moving the person to a “recovery” position, and one in June 2017 in which Chauvin used excessive force in arresting a woman at her home, according to Cahill’s summaries of the incidents.
In the 2015 incident, Chauvin joined other officers who were helping a “suicidal, intoxicated and mentally disturbed” man, prosecutors wrote. The officers were struggling with him and used a stun gun on him.
Eventually the officers got handcuffs on the man and immediately put him in the side-recovery position, according to their training. They called an ambulance, and Chauvin rode with the man to the hospital.
The officers were told by medical professionals that if they had waited any longer to get him help, the man could have died. The officers involved, including Chauvin, were recommended for an award.
In the 2017 incident, Chauvin went to arrest a woman at her home for allegedly trying to strangle her mother with an extension cord, prosecutors wrote. As she walked by, Chauvin grabbed one of her arms and told her she was under arrest.
She tried to pull away and Chauvin put a cuff on one wrist. As she tried to twist away, he pulled her face-down to the floor, kneeled on her body to pin her, and finished handcuffing her.
When she refused to stand up, Chauvin and another officer dragged her outside, with her feet on the ground. The officers put her face-down on the sidewalk.
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“Chauvin’s conduct in kneeling on the woman during this entire time was more force than was reasonably necessary under the circumstances,” the state argued.
Chauvin’s attorney, Nelson, argued in court filings that this use of force was “cleared” by the police department.
“There was nothing unreasonable or unauthorized about Mr. Chauvin’s actions during this incident — nor is it at all similar to the George Floyd incident,” Nelson wrote.
The prosecution has said it has body-worn video of the incident and believes it shows behavior similar to Chauvin’s handling of Floyd.
Defense argues 2019 arrest of Floyd is similar
Jurors will learn about a May 2019 incident, captured on a body-worn camera, in which Floyd allegedly swallowed a pill when officers approached him.
Police were responding to information about illegal narcotics activity. An officer pulled a gun on Floyd and used it to gesture for Floyd to put his hands on the car dashboard.
Floyd, upset, repeatedly begged the officers not to shoot him, then cried as he was handcuffed and patted down. Officers found oxycodone pills on him and in the car. Floyd was later admitted to a hospital for accidental drug ingestion.
The defense argued Floyd’s behavior is part of a pattern.
“When approached by police, he (Floyd) placed drugs in his mouth in an attempt to avoid arrest, and swallowed them,” Nelson wrote. “When interacting with police he engaged in diversionary behavior such as crying and acted irrationally.”
Judge: ‘This is medical evidence’
The defense argued Floyd’s physical condition during that incident may support its contention that Floyd died not from Chauvin’s knee on his neck, but a combination of the struggle, medical problems and drugs.
Cahill agreed to allow some evidence from the 2019 arrest because there were similarities with the incident that ended with Floyd’s death.
“There is a modus operandi to conceal drugs in part by ingesting them,” Cahill said in a court hearing, “but also doing so in a very stressful circumstance that is being pulled out of a car at gunpoint in handcuffs.”
Only a portion of video of the 2019 incident will be shown to the jury, starting with officers approaching Floyd in the car and ending when he is handcuffed. A photograph of pills found in the crack of the car’s seat is also admissible, Cahill ruled.
The jury will not hear a recording of a paramedic’s conversation with Floyd or his emotional behavior, including him calling out for his mother.
In that conversation, the paramedic told Floyd he had to go to a hospital because of his high blood pressure or he could suffer a heart attack or stroke.
Cahill will allow the paramedic to testify about the amount and kind of drugs Floyd took and why the paramedic recommended Floyd go to the hospital.
“The whole point here is we have medical evidence on what happens when Mr. Floyd is faced with virtually the same situation: confrontation by police at gunpoint, followed by a rapid ingestion of some drugs,” Cahill said.
“We don’t have the benefits, obviously, of medical vital signs of May 25,” Cahill said. “The May 6, 2019, case is relevant only to that extent.”
The defense has argued that Floyd took drugs before he was restrained by Chauvin. Floyd had fentanyl and methamphetamine in his system when he died, according to a toxicology report.
An old conviction in Texas
Cahill did not grant the defense’s attempt to present evidence of an August 2007 arrest in Harris County, Texas. According to the defense’s description of the incident, Floyd dressed up as a water department employee and and “forcibly entered a home to steal drugs and money.”
During the robbery, Floyd put a gun on a woman’s abdomen, “allowed her to be pistol-whipped by an accomplice and demanded drugs and money,” the defense wrote.
Floyd was convicted of aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon, the defense wrote.
How will the jury interpret prior incidents?
Mary Moriarty, a former Hennepin County chief public defender, said she believes Chauvin’s prior incidents are more damaging to the defense than Floyd’s arrest is to the prosecution.
But Moriarty said she is concerned the jury could misuse the 2019 incident, concluding there is a pattern to Floyd’s behavior when dealing with police. Whether Chauvin is guilty of murder is not tied to Floyd’s “propensity to be ingesting drugs or to be arrested by police,” she said.
Joe Friedberg, a longtime Minnesota criminal defense attorney, said he believes Floyd’s behavior during the 2019 arrest will influence the jury “because he is acting exactly the same way.”
But Moriarty believes Cahill will give jurors instructions explaining the limits of the evidence.
As for Chauvin’s prior acts, Moriarty said, “You’re not allowed to use that kind of evidence (to say), ‘Chauvin always does this. He’s a bad guy. This is how he interacts.'”
Follow USA TODAY National Correspondent Tami Abdollah, who is covering the Derek Chauvin trial, at @latams
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