The Thin Blue Line Between Murder and Mistake

The Death of George Floyd

black lives matterThis week, Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis Police Officer convicted for the May 20, 2020 murder of George Floyd, was sentenced to a prison term of 22 ½ years, short of the 30 years in prison the prosecutors had requested. The judicial decision went beyond the 12 ½ year sentence normally provided under sentencing guidelines though, with an additional 10 years added by the Judge based upon the Judge’s findings of the officer’s particular cruelty and the abuse of his position of authority and trust.

The sentence was one of the longest prison sentences ever given to a police officer in the United States and followed the Court’s findings of guilt for second-degree manslaughter, third-degree murder and second-degree murder. At his sentencing, the convicted and disgraced officer broke his year-long silence, giving his condolences and hoping that the family would have some “peace of mind”. His lack of apology, although widely expected, as he still has appeals pending and a federal civil rights case yet to begin, struck some however as additional proof that the police officer had no remorse for the fatal event that had befallen another human being entrusted to his protection and care.

Although much of the country felt that justice had been served, others, including many in the Floyd family, believed that the punishment paled in comparison to the personal and societal harm that resulted in the wake of Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for 9 ½ minutes of torture. Some pointed out that with “good behavior”, he might be released from prison in as little as 15 years, although he still will need to stand trial for federal charges as well, which may add to the time he spends in confinement.

Intentional, Reckless and Accidental Conduct

The difference between an accused person being released from custody without being charged and an accused person serving decades in jail often boils down to whether the act that caused the harm was intentional, reckless or simply accidental. Central to the defense of Derek Chauvin was the proposition that he did not cause harm to George Floyd intentionally and that his death was merely accidental while he was following proper police procedures. Of course, the Minneapolis Police Officer was ultimately found guilty by the jury because they simply did not accept his criminal defense attorney’s proposition. In the absence of video-taped evidence and eye-witness testimony, perhaps they might have, but luckily such evidence was present for the jury to consider. This evidence demonstrated that 9 ½ minutes of extreme pressure to George Floyd’s neck was no accident. It was either reckless (which means that although the accused did not intentionally cause the harm, they either knew or reasonably should have known that their actions had a very high likelihood of harm) or intentional (the accused fully intended to cause harm). As long as a person’s actions are either intentional or reckless, criminal culpability generally attaches.

When a Death is Accidental

It’s only when a harm occurs that was purely accidental that the accused may be able to evade arrest and prosecution. Mitchell S. Sexner & Associates LLC has successfully defended a great many people whose actions were later found to be accidental, rather than reckless or intentional. One example was a truck driver who failed to even apply his brakes and ran over more than one car, causing the death of another driver. The fatal accident occurred as he bent down to momentarily pick up an object that had fallen onto the floor. Although his actions were considered by the police and the court to be negligent, it was determined that his actions were not reckless. As such, he was charged only with a petty offense of failure to reduce speed to avoid an accident and did not lose his driver’s license, despite the fact that a person was killed.

The vast majority of those who viewed the video evidence of George Floyd’s arrest found it quite clear that they were witnessing a criminal act, although whether it was an intentional act or a reckless act was subject to intense debate. But not all cases (even those with video evidence) are as obvious.

The Death of Duante Wright

On April 11th, as Police Officer Derek Chauvin was on trial for the murder of George Floyd just ten miles away, Duante Wright was pulled over for minor traffic violations by Brooklyn Police. When he learned that he also had a warrant for his arrest and was about to be handcuffed, he broke free, attempted to get back into his vehicle and a small struggle ensued. As he re-entered the car, Brooklyn Center Police Officer Kim Potter could be heard on the video shouting “Taser Taser Taser” as she deployed her firearm seemingly by mistake. He was then killed from a single bullet fired into his chest.

Tasers vs. Handguns

But how exactly could the police officer have mistaken a Taser for her handgun? Potter was not a rookie officer, but instead was a veteran cop with over 25 years on the police force and was previously elected as president of the local Police Officer’s Association. Her employment files apparently shed very little light on the extent of her police training over the years, even though there is some indication that she received training in the later 1990s related to firearms and felony stop procedures. Some of the main points that relate the question of how she could have mistaken a gun for a taser include:

  • Taser are meant to deliver a shock of high-voltage to temporarily incapacitate a subject from a distance, without the danger of death or permanent disability that comes with a gunshot;
  • The company that manufactures the Taser says they designed the weapon to be easily distinguishable from a gun to avoid any such mistakes;
  • Tasers are usually produced in bright colors such as yellow;
  • Tasers weigh a lot less than guns;
  • Tasers have no safety latch like guns do;
  • Guns and Tasers usually have grips that feel differently;
  • Police officers are trained to keep the Taser on one side and their gun on the opposite side;
  • The police manual for Brooklyn Center mandates that officers receive training, at least annually, which should include draws and cross-draws of the weapons in order to reduce the chances for accidental drawing of the wrong weapon.

After the death of Duante Wright, Officer Kim Potter resigned and was later charged with second-degree manslaughter. Her legal fate will depend upon whether the jury in her case ultimately decides that her actions were truly accidental or whether her actions that day rose to the level of recklessness or intentional action.

Contact Our Police Brutality Legal Team

Since 1990, the attorneys affiliated with Mitchell S. Sexner & Associates LLC have been defending those accused of serious crimes, while also pursuing justice against those in police enforcement who derogate their duties to the public and case harm, injury or death to members of the public. Contact our team 24 hours a day at (800) 996-4824 for experienced legal assistance.

Written by Mitchell S. Sexner Last Updated : January 13, 2023