On Wednesday, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison added a second-degree murder charge to the counts against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the killing of George Floyd, who died after Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes. Ellison also charged the three other officers at the scene when Floyd died. Here is a look at what we learned from Ellison’s remarks about the case, and from Gov. Tim Walz, who also spoke to reporters after the charges against the officers became public.
1. Ellison moved quickly, but he also wants to manage expectations
The decision to add charges against former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin to include second-degree murder — and to charge the three other officers who stood by as George Floyd died — came just two days after Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison took over the case.
“I believe the evidence available to us now supports the stronger charge of second-degree murder,” for Chauvin, Ellison said Wednesday afternoon. At his side was Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, whose office is assisting in the prosecution.
The initial charges of third-degree murder and manslaughter against Chauvin were always subject to be amended, but there was a desire to charge him quickly, and the initial charges were enough to arrest and jail him pending further investigation.
The other three officers — J. Alexander Kueng, Tou Thao and Thomas K. Lane — now all face charges of aiding and abetting second-degree murder and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter. All were fired from the Minneapolis Police Department the day after Floyd’s death, but only Chavin had faced charges before Wednesday. Because they are charged with aiding and abetting a felony, the three other officers face the same maximum penalties as for the underlying crime: up to 40 years in prison.
The three were taken into custody on Wednesday and are being held at the Hennepin County jail.
Ellison warned that he will be quiet about the building of the case going forward and wouldn’t comment on the investigation or the evidence. “Our job is to seek justice and to get a conviction, not to make statements in the press. We’ll do our talking in court.”
He also said building the case could take months. “I don’t know how many. But it is better that we have a solid case — fully investigated, researched — before we go to trial than to rush it,” he said.
Ellison also warned that getting a conviction against police officers is difficult, noting that Freeman is the only county attorney in the state to have won a murder conviction, that of Mohamed Noor for killing Justine Damond.
2. Ellison didn’t believe the evidence supported a first-degree murder charge for Chauvin
Ellison acknowledged that some have called on him to charge Chauvin with first-degree murder.
To win a conviction for first-degree murder in Minnesota, however, Ellison would have to prove premeditation and deliberation. For the new charge of second-degree murder, he has to prove that the killing was unintentional in the course of committing a felony.
“I pledge and I promise to hold everyone accountable for the behavior that we can prove in a court. If I don’t charge it, it means we did not have the facts to do that,” Ellison said, adding: “I did not allow public pressure to impact our decision-making process.”
But he acknowledges suspicion and a lack of trust because “our country has underprosecuted these matters, in Minnesota and throughout the country. The (lack of) trust is a result of historically not holding people who are public guardians accountable for their behavior in situations where we should have.
“But we can’t control the past. All we can do is take the case in front of us and do our good-faith best to bring justice to this situation, and we will.”
3. Floyd’s family supports Ellison’s charging decisions
George Floyd’s family, their attorney and the Rev. Al Sharpton all applauded the new criminal charges at a press conference Wednesday and said they would use Floyd’s funeral Thursday to call for federal legislation to reform policing and the criminal justice system.
Invoking the 1964 Civil Rights Act as well as other landmark laws, Sharpton and Attorney Benjamin Crump called for sustained advocacy. Floyd’s killing was so egregious, they said, it has galvanized Americans to demand changes in unprecedented numbers.
“We believe this is the tipping point in America where we finally address … the fact that there are two justice systems in America: One for black America, and one for white America,” Crump said.
Crump said Floyd’s family prefers first-degree murder charges against Chauvin, but celebrated Ellison’s move to bring more severe charges as a positive step. “I’m just thankful they arrested him,” said Quincy Mason Floyd, George Floyd’s son.
Floyd’s funeral is set for 1 p.m. Thursday at North Central University in Minneapolis, where Sharpton will deliver the eulogy. Sharpton told reporters they would focus on the “human side of who Floyd was,” as well as “challenge this country” to start a movement for sweeping changes to law enforcement and policing.
“Otherwise they will say we had nice rallies, some of us went to jail, some of us did other things, but nothing changed,” Sharpton said. “It’s not about piecemeal policy here.”
4. Walz called Ellison’s decision a ‘meaningful step toward justice for George Floyd’
Walz, first lady Gwen Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan visited the area at 38th and Chicago in south Minneapolis where George Floyd died and placed flowers on the memorial that has sprung up at the site. Walz also met and apologized personally to the CNN reporter who was arrested near the Minneapolis Police Department’s Third Precinct headquarters last week.
In a statement afterward, Walz called Floyd’s death “the symptom of a disease.”
“We will not wake up one day and have the disease of systemic racism cured for us,” he said. “This is on each of us to solve together, and we have hard work ahead. We owe that much to George Floyd, and we owe that much to each other.”
He also expressed support for the additional charges filed by Ellison and Freeman. “The charges announced by Attorney General Keith Ellison today are a meaningful step toward justice for George Floyd. But we must also recognize that the anguish driving protests around the world is about more than one tragic incident.”
Also on Wednesday, Walz extended a shortened-curfew for the Twin Cities for two more nights. “Conditions have improved, but threats to public safety remain,” the order states. “Since May 29, 2020, when I first issued a nighttime curfew, hundreds of individuals have been arrested. Credible threats of arson and other violence remain. Some individuals have used vehicles to ram law enforcement and National Guard vehicles.”
Walz noted that law enforcement has recovered weapons in several recent arrests, and that officers are tracking increased reports of incendiary devices. Because much of the destruction and violence has taken place under the cover of darkness, Walz said, “We must continue a temporary nighttime curfew in coordination with the Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul.”