A new federal grand jury has been appointed in Minneapolis and the Justice Department has called new witnesses as part of its investigation into Derek Chauvin, the former police officer who will face trial in state court next month on murder charges for George’s death. Floyd, according to two people with direct knowledge of the investigation.
The new list of witnesses subpoenaed to testify about Mr. Chauvin is an early sign that the federal investigation into Mr. Floyd’s death, which began last year and then languished, is being reinvigorated under the administration of President Biden.
Mr. Chauvin, who is white, was seen in heartbreaking video footage kneeling for over nine minutes on the neck of Mr. Floyd, a black man, as he begged for his life. The video has sparked protests across the United States, some of which have led to violence in cities like Minneapolis, Seattle, Portland, Oregon and Washington, DC.
The Justice Department, in presenting evidence to a new grand jury, is unlikely to hope for a quick indictment of Mr Chauvin before his trial, which is due to begin on March 8. But if there was an acquittal or an overturned trial, attention would immediately turn to the federal investigation and whether Mr. Chauvin would face trial for violating Mr. Floyd.
As a new grand jury begins to hear more testimony in the case, the investigation has apparently shrunk to focus on Mr. Chauvin, rather than the three other former officers who face charges of complicity , according to one of those briefed on the case. , who was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. A spokeswoman for the Department of Justice declined to comment on the investigation.
As Mr. Chauvin’s trial looms, Minneapolis fears the proceedings may cause further unrest. The National Guard was activated to protect the city’s downtown core during the trial, and law enforcement agencies across the state are called upon to help secure the Twin Cities. Mr. Chauvin, who is free on bail and was allowed to live outside Minnesota due to safety concerns, is charged with second degree murder and second degree manslaughter.
The Justice Department’s investigation of Mr. Chauvin is also shaping up to be an early test for Mr. Biden, who has vowed to allow the department to operate independently of the White House.
Mr Biden said Mr Floyd’s death was an injustice born out of America’s long history of racism. “America’s very soul is at stake,” he said in a speech shortly after Mr. Floyd’s death. “We must commit as a nation to seeking righteousness with every ounce of our being.”
During the presidential campaign, Biden vowed to give new powers to the Justice Department’s civil rights division and to make civil rights a priority within the White House, a statement that at the time raised doubts about its independence.
Mr. Biden was not involved in or briefed on the Justice Department’s investigation into Mr. Floyd’s death, according to a White House official. But the White House has staff members who work on civil rights issues both at the White House Lawyers Office, as well as through the Home Policy Council.
The White House, in a statement, said: “The president spoke in personal terms about how the death of George Floyd affected him and redoubled his commitment to advancing racial justice, but he also made clear that ‘He firmly believed that the Justice Department should be able to act independently to investigate and prosecute any case. “
Three days after Mr. Floyd’s death, Erica MacDonald, the outgoing U.S. lawyer from Minnesota, said her office and the Department of Justice’s civil rights division would investigate the officers’ violation of federal law, saying the matter of “top priority”.
But then Attorney General William P. Barr told a news conference that “out of courtesy,” the department “generally lets the state go ahead with its work first,” an statement that ended the possibility. that an impeachment decision would be made before the elections.
Nonetheless, Mr Barr made it clear that the video was heartbreaking. “When you look at him and imagine that one of your relatives has been treated like that and begging for his life, it is impossible for a normal human being not to be struck with horror to the heart,” he said. declared.
As the New York Times recently reported, three days after Mr. Floyd died on May 25, Mr. Chauvin was ready to plead guilty to third degree murder and go to jail for more than a decade. But the offer collapsed after Mr Barr, at the last minute, rejected the deal, which was conditional on the Department of Justice agreeing not to lay additional federal charges against the to come up. Last summer, a federal grand jury in Minneapolis, which has since expired, began hearing evidence and testimony about Mr. Floyd’s death.
The department has previously opened investigations into several high-profile assaults and assassinations of blacks by police officers – including the murder of Eric Garner on Staten Island; Tamir Rice in Cleveland; Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. – but he rarely charged officers in these cases.
Former Justice Department officials said this was in part because the Department only had one charge to lay in these cases – that in law enforcement, an officer deliberately depriving a person of their civil rights – and that the accusation is difficult to prove. (The charge is not about race, but is based on the idea that an officer “willfully” violated a person’s constitutional rights, such as protection from unreasonable foreclosure or the right to due process.)
While it is easier to show that the use of force by an officer deprived a person of their civil rights, whether “deliberate” or not, has been a challenge, said Jonathan M. Smith, a former an official in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice who is now Executive Director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.
“Will is the highest standard of intent in criminal law – that the person undertakes to act with the intent of depriving someone of their rights,” said Smith. “You have to prove that the law enforcement officer actually knew he was going to violate someone’s rights and acted for that purpose. It is like proving first degree murder.
The Justice Department said last year it was examining other high-profile police shootings that fueled months of protests against police brutality. After a 29-year-old black man, Jacob Blake, was shot seven times in the back by a white officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin in August, the department said it opened a civil rights investigation into the incident. He confirmed that the investigation was underway in January, after the Kenosha County District Attorney refused to charge the officer who shot Mr Blake.
Likewise, the FBI said in May that it was investigating the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor, a black healthcare worker in Louisville, Ky., After Governor Andy Beshear asked local and federal investigators to look into the matter. the case. The results of the FBI investigation have not been released, and the department has not said it will open a civil rights investigation into the agents involved in Ms. Taylor’s murder.
The statute has been used successfully in hundreds of cases under the Obama administration, for example, to convict police officers for abusing their authority to sexually assault victims or to beat inmates, Smith said. But in the most high-profile police assault and murder cases, it has rarely been used.
This is one of the reasons why former Justice Department officials and politicians like Vice President Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor herself, have advocated either changing the statute so that the will is no longer the norm is to pass a new federal law that makes it illegal for an officer to recklessly deprive someone of their civil rights, rather than willfully deprive them.
Judge Merrick B. Garland, Mr Biden’s candidate for head of the Justice Department, said during his Senate confirmation hearing on Monday that he would consult with career lawyers in the Civil Rights Division to find out if the standard of will had to be lowered.
“I would like them to know by talking to them what kinds of changes might be needed in the statute” and the potential consequences of changing the requirement, said Justice Garland.
This is not to say that the statute has never been used successfully in cases of police brutality. When Mr Barr was Attorney General under President George HW Bush, he oversaw the investigation which led to the conviction of two officers who brutally beat motorist Rodney King, even after being acquitted of separate charges by the State.