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Criminal Charges in George Floyd's Death Set Up Legal Battle

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 5/29/2020 Jacob Gershman, Deanna Paul
a group of people riding on a skateboard © Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Associated Press

Prosecutors will face a challenging legal battle in pursuing criminal charges against at least one of the Minneapolis police officers involved in the death of an unarmed black man, George Floyd.

With remarkable swiftness amid violent unrest, prosecutors in Hennepin County announced charges on Friday against one of the white officers involved, accusing Derek Chauvin of third-degree murder and manslaughter. Mr. Chauvin was arrested and taken into custody. He hadn’t been arraigned or entered a plea on Friday.

Video footage showed Mr. Floyd passing out while pinned on the pavement under Mr. Chauvin’s knee during an arrest, touching off waves of protests, looting and rioting.

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To support a third-degree murder charge, prosecutors don’t have to show the killing was intentional. But they need to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officer caused the death by acting with a “depraved mind without regard for human life,” according to Minnesota law. The video alone may not be enough evidence to secure a conviction, said Richard Frase, a criminal-law professor at Minnesota Law School in Minneapolis.

He said prosecutors will have to argue that Mr. Chauvin, who has been fired from his job, knew that pressing his knee against Mr. Floyd’s neck could have deadly consequences but didn’t care.

The local prosecutor, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, had prepared the public for a time-consuming probe. Mr. Chauvin’s arrest came less than a week after the incident and before the local medical examiner’s office has completed an autopsy and determined the cause of death.

In comparison, it took the same prosecution team eight months to bring identical charges against another Minneapolis officer who fatally shot an unarmed Australian woman in 2017. That officer was convicted and sentenced last year to 12 ½ years in prison.

Mr. Freeman’s office still needs to present the case against Mr. Chauvin to a grand jury for an indictment, a process that could take months.

Investigators will need to compile additional evidence beyond the explosive video that much of the public has seen, including witness statements, said Joe Van Thomme, a city prosecutor in Minneapolis and former chairman of the local bar association’s criminal law committee.

The medical examiner hasn’t determined a final cause of death. However, according to preliminary findings in the complaint, Mr. Floyd’s treatment by police, underlying heart disease and hypertension, “and any potential drugs in his system” likely contributed to his death.

“The challenge is getting the evidence together the way you would be able to prosecute the case in a court of law,” he said.

Along with the local investigation, the U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights division is also examining Mr. Floyd’s death.

The federal criminal statute commonly used to prosecute police misconduct requires proof an officer on the job not only acted with excessive force but willfully violated someone’s constitutional rights. A misperception or poor judgment alone isn’t enough to get a conviction.

Federal prosecutors have charged hundreds of law enforcement officers with civil-rights violations over the last decade.

Such federal probes can take months or even years to complete. And some of the most controversial use-of-force cases never yielded criminal charges or convictions.

In 2015, state prosecutors in Maryland charged six Baltimore police officers for their alleged roles in the death of Freddie Gray in a police van. Three of the officers were acquitted, and prosecutors dropped the charges against the others. The Justice Department declined to pursue civil-rights charges.

No indictment ever followed the 2014 death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y. Video footage showed a police officer putting Mr. Garner in a chokehold while struggling to make an arrest. Five years after the incident, federal prosecutors said they concluded the chokehold wasn’t intentional or conclusively the cause of death.

More recently, a federal jury last year convicted a St. Paul (Minn.) Police Department officer of using excessive force against an unarmed 52-year-old man. He was brutally kicked in the ribs and attacked by a K-9 dog after police thought he matched a vague description of a black man said to be involved in a street fight.

Write to Jacob Gershman at jacob.gershman@wsj.com and Deanna Paul at deanna.paul@wsj.com

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