Minnesota cop guilty of murder: Floyd’s killing reverberated across the country, sparking change in Virginia

By: - April 20, 2021 7:05 pm

Thousands of protesters gather at the Robert E. Lee Monument in response to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, lighting up the area with their cell phones, in Richmond, Va., June 2, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce / For the Virginia Mercury)

The jury has spoken, finding Derek Chauvin guilty of murder in the death of George Floyd. The former Minneapolis police officer knelt on the neck of Floyd, who was handcuffed and face down on the pavement, for more than nine minutes last May, a killing that sparked nationwide protests and a reckoning on race and policing, including in Virginia.

Chauvin, who was taken into custody and will be sentenced in eight weeks, was found guilty of second-degree murder; guilty of third-degree murder; and guilty of second-degree manslaughter. The jury deliberated for 10 hours.

“I’m overjoyed. I feel like we can finally start doing the work that we need to do,” said the Rev. Lawrence Richardson of Linden Hills United Church of Christ in Minneapolis. “My hope is that we can be an example for communities around the nation and around the world of what racial reconciliation can look like.”

Richardson joined others in George Floyd Square, the area in south Minneapolis near where Floyd was murdered and has become a place of collective grief and celebration since his death.

Rev. Lawrence Richardson of the Linden Hills United Church of Christ, offers comfort at George Floyd Square. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer.

Justice came after prosecutors laid out a case over the course of 15 days that Floyd died due to a lack of oxygen, or asphyxiation, after Chauvin, a 19-year veteran on the Minneapolis police force, knelt on the 46-year-old Floyd’s neck.

Floyd’s killing was filmed by a teenager and set off a national racial reckoning after decades in which police killed Black men and were rarely punished. In Virginia, Floyd’s death touched of major, sometimes destructive protests, particularly in Richmond, where they centered on the city’s Confederate monuments.

Thousands of protesters march peacefully along Broad Street in Richmond, Va., June 2, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)

Spurred to action, Gov. Ralph Northam and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney announced they would remove Monument Avenue’s statues. Almost a year later, only the Robert E. Lee statue, which sits on state land, remains as a result of a long-running legal dispute.

“The life of George Floyd matters. He should still be alive today, and no courtroom decision can bring him back. But this decision is an important step. It is a step towards accountability for police. It is a step towards justice—for George Floyd, for his family, for his community, and for our entire country,” Northam said in a statement. “I pray that today brings some small comfort to the family of George Floyd and all who loved him. May we honor his legacy by continuing on this march towards justice and meaningful change. We have a lot of work ahead.”

In Virginia’s Confederate statue debate, change came slowly — then all at once

Floyd’s murder and the killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville by police also prompted a special session on police reform by the Virginia General Assembly, resulting in bans on no-knock warrants, limiting the use of choke holds, empowering civilian review boards, creating a code of conduct for Virginia police officers and mandating bias and other training, among a host of other reforms. Some, however, argued the legislature didn’t go far enough, particularly after a viral video of a traffic stop in Windsor this month renewed calls for lawmakers to do away with qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that can shield officers from civil rights lawsuits.

In the video taken by then-17-year-old Darnella Frazier, Floyd’s face is pinned to the pavement, with Chauvin casually atop him, grinding his knee into Floyd’s neck until he went unconscious in 4 minutes and 45 seconds, had no pulse after 5 minutes and died on the street, according to a breathing expert.

Frazier testified during the trial that she’s stayed up nights “apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more and not physically interacting — not saving his life.”

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison thanked George Floyd’s family and the community for their patience before the trial. He also thanked the witnesses who testified after watching Chauvin press his knee into Floyd’s neck. They performed “simple yet profound acts of courage” in telling the truth, Ellison said.

“Why did they stop? They didn’t know George Floyd,” he said. “They stopped and raised their voices, and they even challenged authority because they saw (Floyd’s) humanity.”

The Richmond Times-Dispatch’s building in downtown Richmond was spray painted during protests that erupted last summer over the killing of George Floyd by Officer Derek Chauvin in Minnesota. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

Ellison said a verdict can’t end the pain Floyd’s family is experiencing, but he hopes it helps them heal. He called on community members to continue working toward criminal justice reform, saying “it’s in your hands now.”

“The work of our generation is to put unaccountable law enforcement behind us,” Ellison said. “One conviction like this one can create a powerful new opening to shed old practices and reset relationships.”

Chauvin’s attorney Eric Nelson argued Floyd died from a toxic mix of fentanyl and methamphetamine and health problems ranging from heart disease to hypertension, noting the county medical examiner found no evidence of injury to Floyd’s neck or back.

After closing arguments, Nelson moved for a mistrial, saying the overwhelming media coverage of the case — including comments from elected officials — was impossible to ignore. (Jurors were not sequestered until they began deliberating Monday afternoon).

The three other officers who were on the scene — Thomas Lane, who held down Floyd’s legs; J. Alexander Kueng, who knelt on Floyd’s back and Tou Thao, who kept onlookers at bay — are scheduled to go on trial in August for aiding and abetting Chauvin.

The maximum sentence is 40 years for second-degree unintentional murder, 25 years for third-degree murder and 10 years for second-degree manslaughter. But Minnesota sentencing guidelines recommend a much shorter sentence — 12 ½ years — for murder for a person with no criminal history. Manslaughter has a presumptive sentence of four years for someone with no criminal history.

The case will be studied for decades given its historical importance and legal idiosyncrasies.

Prosecutor Steve Schleicher said he got a call from Ellison, who asked him to help with the case. When a call like that comes, he said, “don’t overthink it,” just do it.

Prosecutor Jerry Blackwell said that “No verdict can bring George Perry Floyd back,” but the verdict shows “He was somebody … and that’s important.” Blackwell said he hopes it brings us along the road “to a better humanity.”

Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank says it was a privilege to get to know the Floyd family.

“This is for you, George Floyd,” he said, choking up and walking away from the microphone.

Virginia Mercury Editor Robert Zullo and Minnesota Reformer reporters Max Nesterak and Ricardo Lopez contributed reporting. 

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter is a freelance journalist in Minnesota who has covered state and local government in four states over the past three decades.