Reasonable Doubt Before Defense Even Begins Is Bad For Conviction
Welcome to our ongoing coverage of the Minnesota murder trial of Derek Chauvin, over the in-custody death of George Floyd. I am Attorney Andrew Branca for Law of Self Defense, providing guest commentary and analysis of this trial for Legal Insurrection.
As we enter the 11th full day of trial in this case, the state is rapidly approaching the end of its presentation for its case in chief. We are, therefore, nearing a major inflection point for this trial.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the criminal trial process, after opening statements by both sides, the state takes the first turn in presenting the jury with its case in chief, meaning its entire comprehensive argument to meet its burden to remove all reasonable doubt on the criminal charges brought against Chauvin.
These charges include second-degree murder (really, felony murder), third-degree murder (really, reckless homicide), manslaughter, and third-degree felony assault (the predicate for the felony murder charge). A more detailed overview of these criminal charges is discussed in our previous commentary and analysis, here: Chauvin Pre-Trial Day 1: 3d Degree Murder Throws Wrench Into Jury Selection Process.
After the state has finished presenting all the witnesses and evidence that they believe prove the crimes charged beyond a reasonable doubt, they rest their case, and it becomes the turn of the defense to present witnesses and evidence that they believe create a reasonable doubt.
The key is that the point at which the state rests its case is normally the high point of the prosecution’s narrative of guilt, the point at which reasonable doubt has been eliminated to the greatest degree likely to be achieved at any point in the trial. From here on the narrative presented to the jury is primarily the narrative of the defense, which is the narrative that drives an increase, not decrease, in reasonable doubt—and reasonable doubt is the key to acquittal.
So, if this is the highpoint of the state’s narrative of guilt, and by extension the point at which reasonable doubt should have been eliminated to the greatest degree in the entirety of the trial, has the state really met that burden? Has reasonable doubt been effectively eliminated? Has the state met the threshold required for conviction? Because if they haven’t done it before the defense even has its turn on the field of legal combat, they’re not likely to achieve it moving forward.
In our coverage of the state’s case in chief so far I’ve seen plenty of state’s witnesses provide testimony and evidence that could readily support a jury—or, at least, individual jurors—in forming a reasonable doubt on these criminal charges, and on at least two fronts.
Keep in mind, the state really has to prove two different claims to arrive at criminal misconduct on the part of Chauvin in the death of Floyd.
First, the state has to prove that Chauvin’s conduct was a significant contributory cause of Floyd’s death—that would be sufficient for the third-degree murder charge. Even the other charges do not require that Chauvin intentionally killed Floyd. Apparently not even the prosecution believes this was an act of intentional RACISTPOLICEMURDER!!! Or we would see an intentional killing charge in this case, and we do not.
But I see many in the media reporting as if that’s all the state has to do, is prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Chauvin’s conduct was a significant contributory cause of Floyd’s death. If that were correct, a conviction would seem at the very least highly possible—after all, the truth is almost certainly that Floyd died not of any single cause but of multiple forces racing together to take his life—his profound heart disease, his dangerous hypertension, his deadly-levels of fentanyl complicated by methamphetamine, his decision to forcibly resist the efforts of four police officers to make his lawful arrest. But also, of course, that force used by police, including the subdual restraint.
Surely it’s not hard to imagine that the subdual restraint was a significant contributory cause of Floyd’s death—at least, it could have been, and a reasonable juror might conclude it was, and that it was proven so beyond a reasonable doubt.
Does that get us to a conviction?
No, because there’s a second condition that must also be met in order for that conduct that may have made a significant contribution to Floyd’s death to be a crime—the conduct itself must in some manner be legally wrongful. If the conduct was lawful, it cannot be the basis for criminal liability.
Some simple analogies should illustrate this point.
If you’re driving your car down the street in a safe and lawful manner, and a pedestrian unexpectedly steps in front of your vehicle and is struck and killed, you certainly made a significant contribution to that pedestrian’s death, but you haven’t committed a crime because your conduct in driving in a safe and lawful manner was not wrongful.
If a surgeon is desperately operating to save the life of a patient on his table, and the patient dies of a combination of their grave illness and the physiological stress of being opened up for surgery, certainly the opening up of the patient made a significant contribution to that patient’s death, but the surgeon hasn’t committed a crime because his conduct in performing surgery was not wrongful.
If an officer intentionally shoots and kills a suspect—so an intentional killing, which is more than Chauvin is charged with!—under circumstances that are legally justified, the officer has clearly made a significant contribution to that suspects death, but the officer has not committed a crime because his use of force was legally justified, and not wrongful.
By extension, even if Chauvin’s use of force on Floyd made a significant contribution to Floyd’s death, it’s not a crime unless that use of force was not justified under the totality of the circumstances, and thus if the force was justified it is not wrongful and not the basis for criminal liability.
Conversely, the same is true if the state’s rationale for guilt is undue delay in providing care, which is one of the several theories of guilt the state has been stirring in their narrative stew of guilt in this case. Even if the delay in care was a significant contributory fact in Floyd’s death, it is not wrongful and not the basis of criminal liability if that delay in care was reasonable under the totality of the circumstances, including the circumstance of Floyd having been just minutes ago violently fighting four officers, the circumstance of the angry crowd shouting threats of imminent physical violence, the officers having no reason to know Floyd was in such fragile condition due to existing disease and fentanyl levels, and more.
So, that’s what the state needs to have achieved by the point that they end their case in chief, even if we just limit ourselves to the 3rd degree murder charge in this case, and disregard the more serious charges—they need to have proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Chauvin’s actual conduct was a significant contributory cause of Floyd’s death AND that Chauvin’s conduct was not reasonable under the totality of the circumstances, given the facts known to Chauvin and the time and in the context of his training and experience.
And the state needs to have eliminated any reasonable doubt, on both those points, in a sufficiently robust manner that it can withstand the next two weeks of defense case in chief driving every single day with every single witness to crack open that window of reasonable doubt.
As of today, has the state achieved that threshold, on both those key issues? If not, will they within the next 24 hours or so before they rest their case in chief?
Color me skeptical.
In any case, be sure to stay with us today as we continue our LIVE blogging of the court’s proceedings in real time, and of course for our end-of-day wrap-up analysis and commentary this evening.
Here’s the live video stream of today’s proceedings:
Here’s the LIVE blog stream:
And, of course, many thanks again for the support of Legal Insurrection, which initiated and sponsored this coverage, and also to CCW Safe which has joined in supporting this effort, making this commentary and analysis free to all of you kind readers, viewers, and listeners.
Finally, anyone interested in a free podcast version of our daily legal commentary and analysis of the Chauvin trial can access the Law of Self Defense News/Q&A Podcast, available on most every podcast platform, including Pandora, iHeart, Spotify, Apple Podcast, Google Podcast, simple RSS feed, and more.
Until next time, stay safe!
Attorney Andrew F. Branca
Law of Self Defense LLC
Attorney Andrew F. Branca’s legal practice has specialized exclusively in use-of-force law for thirty years. Andrew provides use-of-force legal consultancy services to attorneys across the country, as well as near-daily use-of-force law insight, expertise, and education to lawyers and non-lawyers alike. He wrote the first edition of the “Law of Self Defense” in 1997, which you can now order in its current edition for just the price of shipping and handling by clicking here. To know YOUR state’s use-of-force laws in an actionable way that will keep you safer physically and legally, take our state-specific advanced use of force class either streamed online or via a shipped DVD with a 100% no-question- asked money-back guarantee, here: Law of Self Defense State Specific Use-Of-Force Class.
[Featured image is a screen capture from video of today’s court proceedings in MN v. Chauvin.]
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