Having weeks ago made their first impressions, rival attorneys in the Derek Chauvin murder trial are poised to make their final arguments to jurors Monday in Hennepin County District Court.
The lawyers in the long-running trial hope to do their best to make their words resonate as they spell out to jurors why they should acquit or convict the fired Minneapolis police officer charged with killing George Floyd late last spring.
The prosecution, carrying the burden of providing proof to the jury beyond a reasonable doubt, goes first and will have Steve Schleicher take the lead. Then comes defense attorney Eric Nelson's one shot at persuasion before Jerry Blackwell stands poised for rebuttal before jurors weigh charges of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
For the state, said Mitchell Hamline Law School adjunct Prof. Richard Petry, it's crucial to "go element by element through each crime [Chauvin] has been charged with, and making sure you covered everything that you need to cover."
At the same time, he cautioned, "This jury is probably tired and has heard a lot. If they are fading off, you should probably take a cue from that."
David Schultz, law professor at the University of Minnesota and at Mitchell Hamline Law School in St. Paul, agreed that jury fatigue should be taken into account. They started hearing testimony on March 29.
"You don't want to reargue the case again," Schultz said. "I don't think the jury wants to be sitting in the jury box until 3 in the afternoon" after starting at 9 a.m. Monday.
Rachel Moran, associate professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, countered that the prosecution must take all the time it needs, especially when it comes to the medical evidence put before the jury.
"I expect the state will probably be very thorough walking the jury through the medical evidence, as that was the only part of the trial that was a little harder to understand for many laypeople," she said.
On the flip side, Moran said, "the defense wants the jury to walk away confused, especially about how Mr. Floyd died. ... It may have been an overdose, or a heart attack, or exhaust from the nearby car, or really any combination of the above. The defense will emphasize that if the jury isn't certain about how Mr. Floyd died, it has to acquit."
Petry said defense attorney Nelson should avoid specifics about what happened at 38th and Chicago on May 25 or run the risk of tripping himself up.
"If you get too deep into the details, a lot of these theories don't seem to be supported by the evidence," he said. "Most defense attorneys will try to poke holes in the state's case rather than try to establish he's proven something."
Petry anticipates the defense will strongly emphasize in its final arguments the cause of Floyd's death, which Nelson has contended is a combination of cardiac arrest, previous health problems and illicit drugs. The prosecution said a lack of oxygen killed Floyd because of the length of time Chauvin spent kneeling on Floyd's neck and back.
"That's the place where Eric made the noise about," Petry said. "From his perspective, conflicting expert opinions and tests regarding cause of death. There's lack of oxygen, and others saying it was a heart attack and drugs that played a role. He's going to say these things to raise doubt."
The 12 jurors are sequestered until they have unanimous verdicts on each count. Failure to reach at least one verdict, or a hung jury, is a rarity.
Once verdicts are reached, it's the foreperson who delivers them to the court to be read before a worldwide livestream audience.
Judge Peter Cahill has said there will be at least an hour between him being notified of the verdicts and them being read in court. This will allow all necessary parties to be notified and present when the verdicts are disclosed.
The judge also said that if the jury has verdicts to return near 7 p.m., when deliberations are to wrap up each day, he will wait until the next morning to have them read. Cahill said he does not want verdicts announced after dark, when any especially large and unruly civil unrest would be more likely.
This is the fourth trial in modern times of a law enforcement officer in Minnesota being charged with killing someone and going to trial, all happening since 2017, and all reaching verdicts within a few days.
But Chauvin's trial stands alone among the four in its complicated circumstances and sheer length of testimony from more than 40 witnesses. That leaves jurors with much more material to go over, but they are under no obligation to do so.
Sequestration, being kept from loved ones and jobs, also will affect the swiftness of the jurors' decisionmaking, Moran said.
If there is a conviction on any count, Cahill can either allow Chauvin to remain free on bail or be taken into custody until sentencing. Given the seriousness of the charges, it's nearly certain that conviction would mean Chauvin's immediate detention. Former police officer Mohamed Noor was led away in handcuffs upon his conviction in April 2019 for the killing of Justine Ruszczyk Damond.
Not guilty on all charges, and Chauvin walks right out of the courtroom to never be tried again for the same act.
"If it happens that Derek Chauvin is acquitted, it's over," Schultz said. "The prosecution has got one shot."
Staff writer Chao Xiong contributed to this report.