Cara Bayles/Law 360
Wednesday, the Minnesota attorney general charged four former Minneapolis police officers for their roles in the murder of George Floyd, the black man whose death has sparked days of worldwide protests. Derek Chauvin, the officer filmed pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck while he begged for his life, was charged with second-degree murder.
That new charge, filed in an amended complaint, marked a shift in the case. Two days earlier, the governor had asked Attorney General Keith Ellison to take over the criminal investigation started by Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman. It was a step toward “justice for George Floyd,” Gov. Tim Walz said. Freeman’s office will work together with Ellison’s office on the case.
A week before, Freeman’s office had charged Chauvin with the lesser crimes of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. The three other officers weren’t charged at that time. …
The fact the county attorney’s office pointed to weaknesses in its own case reveals a more chronic issue in law enforcement, according to Michael Haddad, a member of the National Lawyers Guild’s National Police Accountability Project: prosecutors’ reluctance to go after police officers.
“To me, it looks like this prosecutor is biased in favor of the police, and doesn’t want to do his job, which is probably why the state attorney general’s office took over,” he said of the original complaint. …
The Floyd case is unusual because charges were filed, Haddad said, but he added that the initial complaint suggests a larger truth about the likelihood of bringing successful charges in such cases.
“It’s extremely rare for any officers to ever get charged,” Haddad said. “The only time it seems to happen is when there is video and they’re caught red-handed.” …
Investigators, too, may be compromised. The agent who worked on the Floyd case, Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension Special Agent Michelle Frascone, has faced prior allegations that called into question her objectivity.
Frascone, who worked for many years as a police officer in the Minneapolis suburb of Woodbury, was sued in a civil case over the death of Jamie Joseph Lewis. In 2016, Lewis’ girlfriend called the police to report that he was depressed, suicidal and had a gun. One of the officers who responded to the scene shot him.
Frascone investigated his death, and according to the suit brought by Lewis’ family, she coached one of the officers who’d responded to the 911 call, suggesting “Lewis’ intent may have been not merely to end his own life, but to murder other people as well,” according to the complaint, which said the officer revised his statement at Frascone’s prompting.
The conspiracy claim against Frascone was dismissed, with a federal judge finding Lewis’ family didn’t have standing to sue her. The Lewis family’s attorney didn’t respond to requests for comment, nor did the Minnesota BCA.
Haddad said such leading questions are the norm during these investigations.
“We see this most of the time. When a police officer has shot or killed someone and they’re being interviewed afterward, it’s so common for the police interviewer to be throwing out softball questions, to be suggesting the right answer for the officer, like, ‘Were you afraid for your life?'” he said.
“Unfortunately, I almost never see an aggressive interrogation of an officer who’s just killed somebody,” Haddad added. “Not the way they would talk to somebody else who’s not a police officer.”
That kid-glove treatment can continue when the case gets to the prosecutor, who might choose not to pursue the case or to do so halfheartedly.
When he announced the additional second-degree murder charge, as well as aiding and abetting murder charges for the other three officers on Wednesday, Minnesota’s attorney general acknowledged the public’s mistrust of the justice system, which has historically failed to hold “people who are public guardians accountable for their behavior.”
“Our country has under-prosecuted these matters,” Ellison said. “We can’t control the past; all we can do is take the case we have in front of us right now and do our good faith best to bring justice to the situation, and we will.”