What will investigators look for in the death of George Floyd?
Whatever the outcome, the process must be evidence-based, deliberate and meet the highest standards of any homicide investigation
The officers may be determined to be grossly at fault and, indeed, discredited and rightly labeled murderer and accessories. An in-depth analysis of all the data may show that they were legally justified in every decision they made. There may be a lot of truth along the continuum between the two conclusions. At the end of all of it, I’ll be able to say I was right not to make a judgment based on 36 hours of news reports.
Here’s what remains to be known at this point.
Cause of death
An autopsy and perhaps as in the case of Michael Brown, multiple autopsies, will be the sole determinant of the cause of death. Particular attention will be given to whether there is internal injury resulting from compression to the posterior portion of the neck, and whether any such injury to nerves or tissue resulted in an inability of Floyd to breathe or maintain critical blood circulation.
The actual mechanism of that compression, including how much weight was applied (it will not be the officer’s total body weight) and the effect of that weight. While still responsive, Floyd was able to move his head laterally while prone with the officer above him.
Pre-existing conditions may be found from medical history or autopsy that could cause death under circumstances that would not be fatal to persons without those conditions. The possibility that death was imminent regardless of the police interaction will be considered to be ruled out if appropriate. Floyd’s universal complaints of stomach upset, hurting all over and breathing problems will be compared to autopsy findings.
The ability of a person to respond in a rational, physically coordinated manner is diminished in a variety of ways when under the influence of a variety of legal or illicit drugs. Many in-custody deaths are a result of the influence of ingested chemicals on the body. The ability to comprehend commands, put compliance into practice, or accurately communicate one’s distress is also affected. A finding of high alcohol content, psychotropic drugs, central nervous system depressants, or polydrug use would be of significant value to investigators in analyzing the context of the custody.
Every officer realizes that resistance to arrest is to be met with proportionate means of control to accomplish the arrest. Floyd’s initial resistance is documented in at least one video. His demeanor before being placed in a prone position will be scrutinized to determine whether there was further active or passive resistance, which can be subtle and not easily observed by bystanders or even video recordings.
Additional angles and views from surveillance video, bystander and officers’ body cameras will be analyzed frame by frame. A millisecond by millisecond timeline will be established to determine an accurate sequence of events. Areas that may be obscured from any videos must be evaluated for what may have occurred outside of the view of any recording.
Witnesses and bystanders
Audio from the initial viral video features narration by the person making the video. The effect of the crowd and its hostility on the decision-making of the officers must be assessed. Whether officers reasonably felt the need to hold their positions until assistance arrived, reasonably feared interference from the crowd or confederates of the person in custody, will also need to be assessed to complete the context. Bystander observations may have been very accurate and provide good insight into officers’ behavior, but it may be significant to hear from less vocal witnesses and to add their narrative to the timeline of the video.
An outcome for justice
Whatever outcome the officers own must be evidence-based, deliberate and meet the highest standards of any homicide investigation. This necessarily requires an open-minded approach, and careful consideration of all physical, demonstrative, statement and circumstantial evidence. Instant judgment is anathema to the central values of the American justice system. The officers of the Minneapolis Police Department, the community they serve, and the dignity and legacy of George Floyd deserve nothing less. And that will take time.