Creating reasonable doubt in the mind of at least one juror is a defense attorney’s No. 1 task. In this case, the astounding amount of evidence made that task extremely difficult if not virtually impossible.
As a criminal defense attorney, I watched with great interest the trial of the former Minneapolis police officer convicted of murdering George Floyd.
Here are my thoughts on the case that has mesmerized the nation and the world since May 25, 2020.
The visual evidence secured the conviction. Creating reasonable doubt in the mind of at least one juror is a defense attorney’s No. 1 task. In this case, the astounding amount of video and audio evidence available to the prosecution made that task extremely difficult if not virtually impossible.
The cell phone video of Mr. Floyd’s killing captured by Darnella Frazier combined with newly-released police body camera footage painted a stark and irrefutable picture of the incident. The defense attorney would have lost all credibility with the jury if he had asked them to disbelieve what they were seeing with their own eyes and hearing with their own ears: the defendant’s knee squarely planted on Mr. Floyd’s neck, the look of utter disdain on the officer’s face, Mr. Floyd’s pleas for his life and the defendant’s derisive and snide replies.
The defense attorney could not afford to lose all credibility with the jurors because he needed at least one of them to buy into the arguments he made on his client’s behalf.
First, he claimed that Mr. Floyd died because of the drugs in his system and because of his diseased heart — rather than the knee on his neck. In the practice of law, this is known as the principle of causation and it was a dead-end for the defense because the prosecution had effectively proven that “but for” the actions of the officer Mr. Floyd would still be alive.
Next, he contended that the members of the crowd who were begging for Mr. Floyd’s life were at fault because the defendant felt threatened and turned his attention away from the person he was obviously killing — even though he could clearly be heard talking to Mr. Floyd while he had him pinned to the ground.
Finally, he said the defendant’s use of force was justified because he could not control Mr. Floyd, a statement directly contradicted by both the video evidence and the numerous law enforcement officials and experts who testified the officer’s actions were excessive and unjustified.
The jury did its job. In an earlier column, I said I was confident extensive voir dire had yielded an impartial jury capable of reviewing the evidence and rendering a just verdict. I believe the diverse group of 12 men and women who sat in judgment of what is undoubtedly the case of the 21st century did exactly that.
The system worked — this time.
History, stretching back to the Rodney King case, teaches us that it is incredibly difficult to secure convictions in cases like this. A critical mass of evidence, competent prosecutors and conscientious jurors determined the outcome of this trial. Absent that convergence of factors, the defendant may well have walked away, especially if video refuting the original police report filed by the defendant had not surfaced.
That outcome would have been tragic for Mr. Floyd’s family and our nation.
— Attorney David Betras, a senior partner at Betras, Kopp & Harshman LLC., directs the firm’s non-litigation activities and practices criminal defense law in both the state and federal courts. He has practiced law for 35 years. Have a legal question you’d like answered here? Send it to email@example.com.