Updated: Mar 29

On 25th May 2020, police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, were called to in incident involving a man who had allegedly used a counterfeit $20 bill in a store in the city. What happened after the police arrived at the scene was to lead to the death of the man who had allegedly tried to use the counterfeit bill and cause worldwide protests. The man, of course, was George Floyd. Tomorrow (29th March 2021) the trial of the man accused of killing him – former police officer Derek Chauvin – gets underway in Hennepin County, Minnesota (Judge Peter Cahill and a jury).

Those who follow our posts will know that we are primarily concerned with civil law, and commercial/business law in particular. However, we know that several of our students and readers are interested in issues of public law in general, and criminal law in particular. American lawyer, and former Harvard University professor of law, Alan Dershowitz has recently called the incident “the most notorious, influential crime of the last quarter of a century.”[1] The trial will, undoubtedly, generate levels of interest worldwide, from both lawyers and non-lawyers.

Given the level of interest in the case, we propose to keep an eye on it for the coming weeks. As we do so, we are going to:

· use the case as an opportunity of looking at legal language and vocabulary connected with criminal trials, including procedure and evidence

· focus on some of the legal issues in the case – substantive, evidential, and procedural - as they unfold, from the perspective of a lawyer rather than, say, from the perspective of someone interested in the social justice issues connected with the case.

As we go, we will try and flag up – as far as we can - some differences between American English and British English legal language, as well as substantive, evidential, and procedural differences within common law jurisdictions.

The case is, of course, one of homicide. Homicide is the killing of one human being by another. From the perspective of the criminal law, homicide is divided into a number of categories, including:

· murder

· manslaughter

As we will see, the main difference between murder and manslaughter is the state of mind of the actor [the person doing the killing]. The ‘intention’ or ‘premeditation’ of the actor is an important feature in this distinction. From a legal perspective, murder is a more serious offence than manslaughter.

In some common law jurisdictions, the criminal law sub-categorises both murder and manslaughter. Under the criminal jurisdiction which operates in Minnesota, for example, both murder and manslaughter are categorised by ‘degrees’. Therefore, we see:

· first degree, second degree, and third degree murder

· first degree, second degree, and third degree manslaughter.

You will hear these offences being referred to as ‘murder in the first degree’, ‘murder in the second degree’, ‘manslaughter in the second degree’, and so on. It should be noted that English criminal law does not categorise murder and manslaughter in this way. Therefore, for example, there is no ‘first degree murder’ under English law.

The trial of Derek Chauvin is going to be broadcast live on television, due to Covid-19 public attendance restrictions. This is only likely to increase interest in and discussion of the case, not just in Minnesota but around the world. As stated earlier, as lawyers, we must try to see this case from its legal perspective, rather than the wider social justice issues which undoubtedly exist. If you watch the case, or any of it, you should try to have a copy of the charges faced by Derek Chauvin in front of you and consider carefully, as must the jury [3], whether the evidence called by the prosecution is sufficient to discharge the burden of proof that the prosecution bears in every criminal trial.

Derek Chauvin currently faces three charges. These are:

· second degree murder

· third degree murder

· second degree manslaughter.

In the next post, we will look at each of these charges, the difference between them, and what the prosecution, led by Minnesota Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank, must prove in order to secure a conviction in relation to them.

Text Notes:

[1] Alan Dershowitz, The Dershow, ‘Are They Overcharging Chauvin?’ 12 March 2021 :

[2] ‘charges’. In a criminal case, a charge is the formal and specific statement of the criminal offence that the defendant [in this case, Derek Chauvin] is accused of. [Note, that in American English, ‘offence’ is spelt ‘offense’.

[3] ‘jury’. A body of people (usually 12) who are chosen to listen to all the facts and evidence in a criminal trial, and decide whether the defendant is guilty or not.

[4] ‘burden of proof’. The legal duty that one side in a trial bears (has) to establish the truth of facts which it alleges. In a criminal trial, the burden of proving the defendant’s guilt is on the prosecution – a defendant does not have to prove he or she is innocent. The prosecution tries to discharge (complete) the burden of proof by the production of sufficient evidence (witnesses, exhibits, etc) to satisfy the jury of the defendant’s guilt.

© Cambridge Legal English Academy 2021

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