- Part of the defense's strategy is to raise doubt about the claim that Derek Chauvin's actions caused George Floyd's death.
- To prove causation, the prosecution must show "but-for" causation and reasonable foreseeability.
- Floyd would most likely not have died on that fatal day "but for" Chauvin kneeling on Floyd's neck.
- It furthermore appears reasonably foreseeable that Chauvin's kneeling on Floyd's neck for almost 10 minutes would result in his death.
As the third day of testimony in the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin got underway today, the prosecution's case may seem like a slam dunk. Yesterday was marked by incredibly moving testimony from witnesses who are still traumatized by their inability to help George Floyd on the fatal day in May last year—including a 9-year-old girl.
Today, the prosecution played surveillance footage from the convenience store Cup Foods showing a witness, former Cup Foods employee Christopher Martin, holding his head in his hands as Floyd was being restrained outside.
Charles McMillian, another witness at the scene, broke down after watching the heartbreaking body camera video of Floyd pleading, "I can't breathe," and then calling out for his mama.
While the prosecution's case has been incredibly impactful thus far, we still haven't heard from the defense's witnesses. During their opening statement, the defense stated that part of their strategy would be to raise doubts about the claim that Chauvin's actions caused Floyd's death.
To see what is at stake here, let's have a closer look at what it takes to prove causation in the context of the law.
Legal causation defined
To raise doubt about the claim that Chauvin's actions caused Floyd's death, the defense would need to give the jurors reason to think Floyd's death was an accident or was caused by something other than Chauvin's actions.
An action legally causes a harmful outcome only if it passes what is also known as the but-for test. If it is true that but for the action, the harm would not have occurred, then the action is said to be an actual cause of the harm.
For example, if a driver runs a red light at an intersection and crashes into another car, we can ask, "Is it true that the crash would not have occurred but for the driver's action of running a red light?" If the answer is yes, then the driver’s action of running the red light is an actual cause of the crash.
But-for causation (“actual causation”) is insufficient for legal causation, however. For example, if the crash would not have occurred but for his wife telling him that she has been diagnosed with cancer the day before, then the wife's announcement is an actual cause of the crash. But her telling him about her diagnosis is not a relevant cause of the collision.
An action is relevant to legal culpability only if it’s a proximate cause, which means that the action is deemed temporally and spatially close enough to the harmful outcome in an "unbroken chain of events."
A standard test of whether an action is a proximate cause is reasonable foreseeability. A harmful outcome is reasonably foreseeable if that outcome could reasonably have been predicted.
The driver's wife could not reasonably have predicted that her telling him about her diagnosis would be a cause in a chain of events leading to her husband's collision. So, her telling him about her diagnosis is not a proximate cause of the crash. Accordingly, she is not legally culpable for the crash.
Would Floyd not have died "but for" Chauvin's actions?
For Chauvin's actions to have caused Floyd's death, they must pass the but-for test. To determine whether they pass the but-for test, we can ask, "Is it true that Floyd would not have died when he did but for Chauvin's actions?"
It does not seem reasonable to doubt that Floyd would have died on that fatal day, had Chauvin not performed the actions he did. It seems, then, that Chauvin's actions were an actual cause of Floyd's death.
But proving actual causation does not suffice for establishing legal causation. The prosecution must also prove that Chauvin's actions were a proximate cause of Floyd's death. One way to establish that his actions were a proximate cause of Floyd's death is to show that Floyd's death could reasonably have been predicted to occur as a result of Chauvin's actions.
Was Floyd's death reasonably foreseeable?
To determine reasonable foreseeability, we can ask, "Could Floyd's death reasonably have been predicted to occur as a result of Chauvin's actions?"
To answer that question, recall that Chauvin kneeled on Floyd's neck for almost 10 minutes. During that time, Floyd kept pleading, "I can't breathe," he cried out for his mama, and he stopped moving and became quiet. Shockingly, Chauvin continued to kneel on Floyd's neck for three minutes after it was confirmed that Floyd had no pulse.
Genevieve Hansen, the off-duty firefighter who testified on the second day of the trial, furthermore testified that while Chauvin was still kneeling on Floyd's neck, she saw liquid flowing from Floyd's body, which could be a sign that he had died.
So, let's ask once more: Could Floyd's death reasonably have been predicted to occur as a result of Chauvin's actions?
The answer, it seems, is "yes." Not only could Floyd's death reasonably have been predicted to occur, but there was, in fact, broad agreement among the prosecution's witnesses that Chauvin was going to kill Floyd. So, it is hard to see how the defense will go about raising reasonable doubt about the claim that Chauvin's actions caused Floyd's death.
In our next post, we will address the question of what the prosecution will need to show to prove that Chauvin caused Floyd's death with malice.