Justice Department Brings Federal Criminal Charges Against Derek Chauvin, 3 Others

May 7, 2021
Originally published on May 7, 2021 11:08 am

Updated May 7, 2021 at 12:29 PM ET

The Justice Department has filed federal criminal charges against Derek Chauvin, accusing the former police officer of using excessive force and violating the civil rights of George Floyd. Floyd died after Chauvin pressed on his neck for more than nine minutes on the pavement outside a convenience store last year in Minneapolis.

Three other former officers on the scene that day — Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao — have been charged federally in connection with Floyd's death. Two of the men, Kueng and Thao, are accused of failing to intervene to stop Chauvin. All three face a charge of failing to provide medical care with "deliberate indifference" to Floyd's suffering. They already are preparing for a state trial in August.

Chauvin also faces a separate federal indictment related to a 2017 incident where he allegedly used a neck restraint "without legal justification" on a 14-year-old and beat the teenager in the head with a flashlight.

Federal civil rights prosecutors from Washington worked hand in hand with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Minnesota to build the case.

Such federal charges are rare, in part because it is difficult to meet the high legal bar they require. To succeed, prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Chauvin acted "willfully" to deprive Floyd of his civil rights and used force that was "constitutionally unreasonable."

In those cases, officers can argue in their defense that they acted out of fear, panic or even poor judgment, some of which featured in Chauvin's defense to state charges in a trial that concluded with a conviction on all counts last month. Chauvin has moved for a new trial, citing alleged jury misconduct and pretrial publicity.

The video of Floyd, who was Black, pleading for his life and crying for his late mother reverberated around the globe, with people who watched it taking to the streets in the summer of 2020 to protest police brutality and racial injustice. Floyd's young daughter met President Biden on the campaign trial, and he often repeats her statement that her "daddy changed the world."

The case is yet another demonstration of the Biden administration's emphasis on civil rights. In the Trump administration, Attorney General Bill Barr declined to approve a plea deal with Chauvin after Floyd's death, reasoning that he preferred to cede that ground to local authorities and that the situation in Minneapolis was incendiary enough.

But the U.S. Justice Department has weighed in with federal charges in other cases, including the brutal police beating of Rodney King in California in 1991; the murder of nine Black parishioners during a Bible study at a historic church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015; and the death of a young woman protesting against hate groups in a vehicular assault in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017.

The current attorney general, Merrick Garland, told ABC News he was "shocked" by the video of Floyd's death and saddened by the persistence of racial discrimination in housing, education and the justice system.

The new federal criminal cases are separate from an ongoing civil rights investigation Garland announced April 21 that will examine whether Minneapolis police have engaged in a "pattern or practice" of discrimination, including excessive force and mistreatment of people with disabilities. Authorities in Minnesota have pledged to cooperate with that civil investigation, which could take months to pursue.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison welcomed the new federal criminal charges. "The federal government has a responsibility to protect the civil rights of every American and to pursue justice to the fullest extent of federal law," Ellison said. "Federal prosecution for the violation of George Floyd's civil rights is entirely appropriate."

NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson said the charges are a "step in the right direction" but that "urgent reforms" are needed. The NAACP has been working with a bipartisan group of lawmakers on a bill named after Floyd that would create a national registry of police misconduct, among other things.

"No police officer is above the law, nor should they ever be shielded from accountability," Johnson said.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's look more closely at the civil rights charges against Derrick Shervin. A federal grand jury indicted the former Minneapolis police officer and three other former officers for violating the rights of George Floyd. Chauvin has already been convicted, of course, of murder by a state court. Reporter Riham Feshir is covering the story for Minnesota Public Radio. Good morning.

RIHAM FESHIR, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So what does the indictment say?

FESHIR: So these types of federal civil rights charges are criminal charges. And they're known as deprivation of rights under the color of law. And what that means is they're alleging that Derek Chauvin and the other officers deprived George Floyd of his civil rights while wearing a uniform, while performing their duties as police officers. And it also said - and there are three counts in the complaint. The first count is against Chauvin alone for his role in pinning Floyd to the ground. The second count alleges that two of the officers, Kueng - J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao, failed to intervene to stop Chauvin from using unreasonable force. And the third count applies to all four officers, including Thomas Lane, who had mentioned, you know, turning Floyd over on his side. But he is still named in the indictment, which argues that Floyd had the right not to be deprived of liberty without due process.

INSKEEP: And when we say under color of law, doing it while wearing the uniform, we understand there why the other three officers were charged. A bystander who failed to intervene, who did not intervene, of course, would not be charged with that. But what the federal grand jury is saying is that people wearing the uniform had a duty to intervene and to stop Chauvin from doing what he was doing.

FESHIR: Right. Again, these are criminal charges, and they carry pretty harsh sentences. Legal experts tell us that Chauvin could be facing up to life in prison. So it's a significantly longer sentence than what he's facing in state court, which is 12 to 15 years. And I should note that the grand jury has been hearing evidence about this case since last summer, you know, multiple times. We know that from witnesses who testified in the state's case that just ended last month with a conviction against Chauvin of murder and manslaughter.

INSKEEP: Isn't there also in this indictment a mention of a different, much earlier case?

FESHIR: Right. There is a separate indictment that charges Chauvin in connection with another case involving a 14-year-old boy who Chauvin allegedly knelt on for 17 minutes. This is according to body camera footage that prosecutors had cited. Apparently, Chauvin was responding to a domestic assault when he found the teenager in a room and allegedly hit him with a flashlight, grabbed his throat and knelt on him for about 17 minutes.

INSKEEP: Well, let's try to figure out what this would mean potentially for Derek Chauvin. And, of course, we don't know how he would plead on these charges yet, but he's already been convicted of murder. He's already going to be in prison for a very long time. What are the possibilities here for him now?

FESHIR: I mean, he could go to another trial in federal court. Or he could, like you mentioned, reach a plea agreement. We have not heard a response from his attorney. But he did - his attorney did file a request recently to throw out his conviction, which is pretty standard. But he argues that Chauvin didn't receive a fair trial and that the possibility of juror misconduct may have contributed to that.

INSKEEP: OK, so now he faces both state appeal and federal court proceedings of some kind. Minnesota Public Radio's Riham Feshir, thank you very much.

FESHIR: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.