An attorney for Derek Chauvin plans to ask an appeals court on Wednesday to overturn the former Minneapolis police officer’s convictions in the death of George Floyd, claiming that numerous legal and procedural flaws denied him a fair trial.
Floyd died on May 25, 2020, after Chauvin, a white man, pinned the Black man to the ground for 9 1/2 minutes with his knee on his neck. Floyd’s fading cries of “I can’t breathe” were captured on video by a bystander. Floyd’s death sparked worldwide protests and forced a painful national reckoning with police brutality and racism.
Chauvin was sentenced to 22 1/2 years in prison by Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill after jurors found him guilty of second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. Later, Chauvin pleaded guilty to a separate federal civil rights charge and was sentenced to 21 years in federal prison, which he is now serving concurrently with his state sentence in Arizona.
While Chauvin waived his right to appeal as part of his federal plea agreement, he continued to appeal his murder convictions in state court. Even if he wins his appeal, his federal sentence will likely keep him in prison longer than his state sentence because he would be eligible for parole sooner under the state system.
“A victory at the Minnesota Court of Appeals would be a pyrrhic victory because it would be functionally meaningless,” said Mike Brandt, a Minneapolis defense attorney who has been following the several cases arising from Floyd’s murder. He pointed out that Chauvin’s time in prison is “pretty well locked in stone” given his federal sentence.
But Chauvin might also like the idea of having the murder conviction off his record, leaving only the federal civil rights count, for when he gets out of prison, Brandt said.
William Mohrman is Chauvin’s appeals attorney, and he frequently represents conservative causes such as challenges to President Joe Biden’s election victory and COVID-19 vaccine mandates. Mohrman took the case after Chauvin was unable to find an attorney to represent him in his appeal.
Mohrman and his firm’s partners, according to Brandt, have taken on many high-profile causes “with a conservative bent,” and this could be another.
“Chauvin has nothing to lose.” “Brandt stated. “If someone wants to take the appeal, it’s no skin off his nose either way.”
Mohrman argued in his brief to the Minnesota Court of Appeals that the pretrial publicity was more extensive than in any other trial in Minnesota history, and that the judge should have moved the trial elsewhere and sequestered the jury for the duration.
Mohrman wrote that the publicity, combined with the riots, the city’s $27 million settlement with Floyd’s family announced during jury selection, unrest over a police killing in a Minneapolis suburb during jury selection, and the unprecedented courthouse security were just some of the factors undermining Chauvin’s chances of a fair trial.
He also claimed that Cahill improperly excluded evidence that could have been favorable to Chauvin and accused prosecutors of misconduct.
Prosecutors said in their brief that Chauvin had a fair trial and received a just sentence.
The prosecutors — including state Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank and Neal Katyal, who was acting U.S. solicitor general during the Obama administration — argued that Chauvin’s rights were not prejudiced.
They said pretrial publicity had blanketed the state making a change of venue for the trial pointless, and that Cahill took extensive steps to ensure the selection of impartial jurors. They also said he took sufficient steps to shield the jurors from outside influences so there was no need to sequester them before deliberations.
Other issues in the appeal include whether Chauvin’s conviction for third-degree murder was legal, and whether Cahill was justified in exceeding the 12 1/2 years recommended by the state’s sentencing guidelines.
Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng, and Thomas Lane, three other officers present during Floyd’s murder, were convicted of federal civil rights charges last February and are serving their sentences in out-of-state federal prisons.
Lane and Kueng accepted plea bargains on state charges of manslaughter and are serving concurrent sentences. Thao, however, refused to enter a guilty plea. Attorneys for both sides agreed to let Cahill decide Thao’s guilt based on the evidence provided. That verdict is still on the books, as is his federal appeal.