Update from Minnesota: Former police officer’s trial will hinge on autopsy of George Floyd

Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Lawyers say prosecutors have a strong case, but juries can be unpredictable

Minnesota is bracing itself for the March trial of Derek Chauvin, when 12 jurors will decide whether the former Minneapolis police officer committed second-degree murder when he pressed his knee into the neck of George Floyd, handcuffed and face down on Chicago Avenue, on Memorial Day last year.

The story should be familiar to the entire jury pool by now, having traveled from a 17-year-old girl’s cellphone at 38th Street and Chicago Avenue around the world, inspiring protests large and small. From the Champs de Mars in Paris to one mom alone on a Minnesota highway, people raised “I can’t breathe” and “Black Lives Matter” signs. Statues of slave traders were thrown into rivers. Laws were changed. Police were put under a microscope.

It all began when a Cup Foods clerk in south Minneapolis called 911 to report that a man tried to buy cigarettes with a  $20 bill the clerk suspected was fake. Police arrived to find Floyd in a car outside the store. They tried to put him in a squad car, but Floyd resisted, saying he was claustrophobic, so he was moved to the street, face down and handcuffed.

Floyd said “I can’t breathe” 16 times and called “Mama.” Even after Floyd’s eyes closed, after his body went limp, and a full seven minutes after the officers called for medical assistance, Chauvin, who is also charged with manslaughter, kept his knee on Floyd’s neck.

The three other officers who were on the scene — Thomas Lane, who held down Floyd’s legs; J. Alexander Kueng, who knelt on Floyd’s back;  and Tou Thao, who kept onlookers at bay — go on trial in August for aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter. The outcome of Chauvin’s trial will undoubtedly affect their cases.

The way police responded will be scrutinized by a jury, whose selection is scheduled to begin March 8, barring any delays.

The trial will be in the Hennepin County Government Center in downtown Minneapolis, where plywood and barricades have gone up again in case protests are accompanied by looting and arson, as they were last year.

Videos of the incident that sparked a global revolt will come into focus again, except this time played in a courtroom and livestreamed all over the world.

Andrew Gordon tries cases in Hennepin County as director of community legal services for the Legal Rights Center — a nonprofit, community law firm — and expects the defense attorneys to focus on the cause of death.

“Did the knee kill him or did George Floyd die because he was on drugs and he was a bigger gentleman who had heart failure?” he said. “I think at the end of the day, that’s what the defense is largely gonna look like.”

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin – Photo: Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office

Autopsies will be key

Expect scrutiny of the autopsies, Gordon said.

Hennepin County Medical Examiner Andrew Baker will be a central figure. He ruled Floyd’s death a homicide, saying he died when his heart stopped as police restrained him, compressing his neck. The autopsy also said  he had heart disease and fentanyl and methamphetamine in his system, and tested positive for COVID-19.

Handwritten notes from investigators’ interview with Baker say Floyd had 11 nanograms of fentanyl per milliliter in his bloodstream. Baker told investigators that “If he were found dead at home alone and no other apparent causes, this could be acceptable to call an OD. Deaths have been certified with levels of 3 (nanograms).”

Baker added, however: “I am not saying this killed him.” Read more

Day One of trials for Alamance protesters: dismissed charges and/or no penalties

Protesters at a June 2020 “March for Justice & Community” in Graham – Photo: Anton L. Delgado

Trials of protesters who demonstrated in Graham last fall in support of the Black Lives Matter movement got underway on Wednesday, with the prosecutor dropping charges against two people, and the judge affirming misdemeanor charges against another individual without imposing a penalty.

The Alamance County town was the scene of multiple protests on a variety of topics in 2020. Triad City Beat tallied more than 70 charges filed against protesters last year from June through November, including those whose trials took place Wednesday. Among the events that gave rise to arrests:

  • a June 27 “Black Lives Matter” protest,
  • a July 25 NAACP “Call to Action” speaker meeting,
  • a Sept. 8  protest against the county jail’s COVID response,
  • a Sept. 26 “We Are Still Here” march around the courthouse where a Confederate monument stands, in which nine were arrested,
  • an Oct. 31 “march to the polls” in which law enforcement officers pepper-sprayed marchers and charged some people with failure to disperse on command.

In August, a  federal judge issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting a ban on protests around the courthouse that the sheriff’s office had sought to impose.

Judge Lunsford Long, a retired judge who is sometimes recalled to hear cases, presided over this week’s trials. An Alamance trial court coordinator told Policy Watch that Long will hear all the remaining protest cases.

Dionne Liles, the first to appear on Wednesday, was among dozens of protesters who showed up at a parking lot on Sept. 8, said Deputy Sheriff J. Giannotti. Liles said at the hearing that she and other demonstrators were “amplifying the voices of the people that were incarcerated” after COVID outbreaks were reported at the county jail and asking the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office to provide more PPEs to staff and inmates.

Liles represented herself. Judge Long dismissed the charge of assault on government officials or employees. Giannotti testified that Liles struck him with a sign, which she denied.

“My intentions were not… malicious, but to keep my eyes on what was happening to my friend,” Liles defended her reaction, “He is a man of color that was tackled by three officers, possibly more to the ground.”

While Long found Liles guilty of trespassing and resisting a public officer, the judge offered her a “prayer for judgment,” a unique North Carolina disposition for defendants where they won’t have the judgment entered against them. Her other charge of failure to disperse during the Oct. 31 protest will be resolved later in March.

Assistant District Attorney Kevin Harrison then dropped charges for two other cases where protesters were charged with impeding traffic in the “We Are Still Here” march. Harrison concluded that there was insufficient evidence after law enforcement officers testified.

Other demonstrators’ cases that involve the Sept. 8 and Oct. 31 protests will continue and roll over to the following court sessions. More than 20 additional protest-related trials are scheduled every Wednesday from March 3 to April 7, according to court calendars released by Alamance County District Court.

State audit: NC Medicaid paid health care providers with suspended, restricted licenses

The state Medicaid program paid millions of dollars to health care providers with suspended, revoked, or restricted licenses, the NC Auditor’s office found.

The audit identified weaknesses in tracking professional boards’ disciplinary actions and in the recertification process required of providers and companies that treat patient who use Medicaid.

“Because the Division allowed all providers who had professional license limitations to remain enrolled, there was an increased risk that providers whose actions posed a threat to patient safety were enrolled in Medicaid,” the audit said.

In its written response, the state Department of Health and Human Services said it had begun to make the recommended improvements. Dr. Mandy Cohen, DHHS secretary, said in the response that the state is trying to get $13.4 million back from unqualified providers.

Medicaid is government health insurance for low-income children and parents, elderly people, and people with disabilities. About 2.2 million people were enrolled in Medicaid or the Health Choice insurance program for children last year, according to a state report on the programs. The two programs cost about $16.8 billion last year, according to the report. The federal government paid $13 billion and the state $3.8 billion, the report said.

State auditors checked 66 providers who took Medicaid money and had been disciplined by their licensing boards. Of the 66, 26 had had their licenses suspended or revoked. Eighteen of the 26 had not been removed from the Medicaid program. Eight had licenses suspected or revoked for substance abuse, two for sexual misconduct/inappropriate behavior with women, and one had a felony conviction related to health care fraud, the audit said.

Thirty-six of the 66 had license limitations. One oral surgeon’s dental license was revoked after the death of a patient following surgery and after the NC Board of Dental Examiners found a “deliberate, dishonest plan or scheme to routinely and systematically defraud the Medicaid program and to enrich himself for his own personal gain,” the audit said.

The oral surgeon kept his medical license and was allowed provide services that required a dental license. The provider billed $1.5 million for 1,460 Medicaid patients from July 2016 through June 30, 2020, the audit said.

DHHS said it did not know when the audit started that it could remove from the Medicaid program providers who had limitations on their licenses. While the audit was ongoing, DHHS asked the federal agency that oversees Medicaid if those providers could be removed, and learned that it was up to the state to determine whether it was comfortable having them in the program.

DHHS said it established a policy for reviewing providers with license limitations in August 2020. The policy describes when providers should be disqualified from taking Medicaid money and when they should be monitored.

Since a committee was established, 52 providers have been reviewed for license limitations. Six providers were cut off from the Medicaid program, a dozen were monitored, and 34 were determined to be low risk, DHHS wrote.

National publication: “North Carolina’s lieutenant governor has Jewish community on high alert”

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson

You may want to find a calm and peaceful moment to do so and take a few deep breaths before plunging in, but if you care about North Carolina and its future, you would probably do well to read reporter Matthew Cassel’s story for Jewish Insider this morning about the highest ranking Republican in state government — our new Lt. Governor, Mark Robinson.

As Cassel explains in “North Carolina’s lieutenant governor has Jewish community on high alert,” Robinson continues to do little to assuage the concerns that were raised during last year’s campaign and during the weeks that followed about the numerous hateful and ignorant statements he has made down through the years about groups and individual he sees as adverse to his extremist belief system.

Here’s Cassel:

The lieutenant governor, a devout Christian who presents as a brash and unfiltered conservative culture warrior, invoked a number of antisemitic tropes in the years leading up to his election. In strongly worded Facebook posts, he decried a “globalist” conspiracy to “destroy” former President Donald Trump and took aim at “Black Panther,” the Marvel film whose titular protagonist, as Robinson put it, was “created by an agnostic Jew and put to film by [a] satanic marxist.” He went on to allege, using a Yiddish slur, that the movie “was only created to pull the shekels out of your Schvartze pockets.”

Last fall, Raleigh’s News & Observer unearthed an interview in which Robinson spoke with a fringe pastor, Sean Moon, who claimed that the modern incarnation of the four horsemen of the apocalypse includes China, the CIA, Islam and the Rothschild family of “international bankers that rule every single national or federal reserve-type style of central bank in every single country.”

Rather than objecting to the blatantly antisemitic conspiracy theory, Robinson grunted along in agreement. “That’s exactly right,” he said.

Cassel’s story also goes on to explore the downright bizarre and positively Trumpian stance Robinson has voiced in recent weeks that he doesn’t need to apologize for past hateful statements because — we’re not making this up — he uttered them prior to taking office. Read more

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