Sacked Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder and manslaughter Tuesday in the death of African American George Floyd in a case that roiled the United States for almost a year, laying bare deep racial divisions.
A racially diverse jury of seven women and five men in the Midwestern city of Minneapolis took less than two days at the end of a three-week trial to find the white officer guilty in unanimous decisions on all three charges he faced.
Chauvin, 45, could be handed decades behind bars for Floyd's May 25, 2020 killing, which sparked protests against racial injustice around the world and is being seen as a landmark test of police accountability.
Earlier on the same day, U.S. President Joe Biden said he was “praying the verdict is the right verdict” in the trial of Chauvin. He said he believed the case, which had gone to the jury and put the nation on edge, was “overwhelming.”
Biden told reporters he was only weighing in on the trial into the death of Floyd, who died with Chauvin's knee on his neck, because the jury in the case had been sequestered. He said he called Floyd's family on Monday to offer prayers and “can only imagine the pressure and anxiety they’re feeling.”
“They’re a good family and they’re calling for peace and tranquility no matter what that verdict is,” Biden said a few hours before the verdict was to be announced. "I’m praying the verdict is the right verdict. I think it's overwhelming, in my view. I wouldn’t say that unless the jury was sequestered now.”
The president has repeatedly denounced Floyd's death but had previously stopped short of weighing in on Chauvin's trial, with White House officials saying it would be improper to speak out during active judicial proceedings. On Tuesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki repeatedly refused to explain Biden's comments, doing nothing to dispel the impression that he thought Chauvin should be found guilty.
The White House has been privately weighing how to handle the upcoming verdict, including considering whether Biden should address the nation and dispatching specially trained community facilitators from the Justice Department, aides and officials told The Associated Press (AP). With word that a verdict had been reached Tuesday afternoon, Biden postponed planned remarks at the White House on his infrastructure package.
Biden's comments came a day after Judge Peter Cahill, who is presiding over the trial, admonished elected officials about speaking out on the case.
“I wish elected officials would stop talking about this case, especially in a manner that’s disrespectful to the rule of law and to the judicial branch and our function,” he said shortly after sending the jury to begin deliberations.
Defense attorneys often cite remarks made by public officials as a reason to appeal a verdict, in part because they could poison the jury against the defendant.
Cahill delivered his rebuke after rejecting a defense request for a mistrial based in part on comments from California Rep. Maxine Waters, who said “we’ve got to get more confrontational” if Chauvin isn’t convicted of murder. Speaking of politicians in general, the judge said, "I think if they want to give their opinions, they should do so in a respectful and in a manner that is consistent with their oath to the Constitution to respect a coequal branch of government. Their failure to do so, I think, is abhorrent.”
He conceded to Chauvin's attorneys that Waters' comments could potentially be grounds for an appeal.
On Monday, Cahill ordered that jurors be sequestered in an undisclosed hotel during their deliberations and instructed them to avoid all news about the case.
Despite Cahill’s remarks, Brock Hunter, a criminal defense attorney and past president of the Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said he considered a successful appeal over remarks like Waters’ and Biden’s extremely unlikely.
“It’s inevitable that public officials are going to comment on a case and its impacts on communities,” he said. “Unless there is direct evidence that statements by a public official directly impacted a juror or jurors, I don’t think this even gets off the ground.”
In closing arguments earlier Monday, a prosecutor told jurors that Chauvin “had to know” he was squeezing the life out of George Floyd as he cried over and over that he couldn’t breathe and finally fell silent. Chauvin faces murder and manslaughter charges.
Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd, told NBC's “Today” show that Biden “knows how it is to lose a family member ... so he was just letting us know that he was praying for us and hoping that everything would come out to be OK.”
The verdict – and the aftermath – will be a test for Biden, who has pledged to help combat racism in policing, helping African Americans who supported him in large numbers last year in the wake of protests that swept the nation after Floyd’s death and restarted a national conversation about race. But he also has long projected himself as an ally of police, who are struggling with criticism about long-used tactics and training methods and difficulties in recruitment.
Vice President Kamala Harris said Tuesday, before it was announced the verdict was coming, “Let’s say there is a guilty verdict on the highest charge, it will not take away the pain of the Floyd family.”
“It will not take away the pain of the communities, all communities, regardless of their color or geographic location, that felt sadness and anger in what they witnessed in that video," she told CNN.
The White House, meanwhile, stepped up preparations for the verdict. Psaki said administration officials had been in contact with leaders in Minnesota and in other cities and states that saw unrest after Floyd’s death last year.
The FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office in Minnesota have been working with local officials to support law enforcement as they prepare for the possibility of unrest after the verdict, officials said.
And the Justice Department has also dispatched specially trained community facilitators, according to a senior Justice Department official. The official could not discuss the plans publicly and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.
The officials, part of the Justice Department’s Community Relations Service, tout themselves as “America’s Peacemaker” for mediating disputes in communities and holding listening sessions to help prevent future conflicts.
A federal civil rights investigation, separate from the trial, remains ongoing. Several witnesses were subpoenaed earlier this year to appear before a federal grand jury considering charges against Chauvin.
The Justice Department’s civil rights investigation has been focused on Chauvin and some of the witnesses, including other officers who worked with Chauvin, people familiar with the matter have told the AP.
Chauvin was prepared to plead guilty to third-degree murder in George Floyd’s death before then-Attorney General William Barr personally blocked the plea deal last year. Barr rejected the deal in part because he felt it was too soon, as the investigation into Floyd’s death was still in its relative infancy, law enforcement officials said.