As the details of George Floyd’s death is scrutinized by the criminal justice system, Day 8 of Derek Chauvin’s trial featured prosecution witnesses who were responsible for the collection and testing of crime-scene evidence. Their testimony reinforced why it is important, when a death occurs in police custody, that an independent agency is immediately contacted to assume full control of the investigation. Leaving that responsibility to those who were directly involved (for even a short period of time) can, and should, cast doubts on any evidence ultimately collected.
In this case, Chauvin, and other officers who restrained Floyd, remained at the scene until MPB supervisors and investigators arrived. It was a couple of hours before investigators from the Minnesota State Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (the “BCA”) assumed full authority.
It is typical for law enforcement investigators (from within and outside of the department) to make spot decisions on where to focus their efforts based on the version of events recounted to them by officers at the scene. In this case, Chauvin and others briefed their Sergeant, the latter then briefed the homicide investigator, who then briefed the BCA team.
In other scenarios, any involved individuals would immediately be removed from the area and prevented from accessing potential evidence. They would also not be allowed to communicate with other witnesses or potential suspects, and their version of events would be considered through a prism of possible bias or self-interest. In police-involved incidents, including this one, many of these basic investigative rules are either disregarded or are inconsistently followed. The initial information investigators secure can influence, among other things: the crime scene's parameters; where they will search for evidence; the type of evidence they will look for; the kinds of testing to perform on the evidence collected; the identification of potential witnesses; and, the questions to ask potential witnesses.
During today’s hearing, forensic investigators and scientists testified about the collection and testing of drugs alleged to have been found in Floyd’s car and the police vehicle in which he was temporarily placed. Jurors heard testimony regarding who collected the evidence, when it was collected, and its chain of custody (a delineation of the specific steps that occurred to transfer and safeguard the evidence).
The jury heard testimony that fragments of pills containing fentanyl and methamphetamines, as well as traces of Floyd’s DNA, were collected. However, the pills were not found by investigators during their initial searches of these vehicles. They were supposedly discovered several months later when, at the request of both prosecutors and the defense, additional searches of the vehicles were conducted. The investigators' explanation of the lapse was that when they conducted their first search, they “didn’t have all the information.” It will be up to the jury to decide how much weight to give to these suddenly discovered pills, and their questionable chain of custody.
According to Debra Cohen, co-chair of the Civil Rights Practice Group of Newman Ferrara LLP and an adjunct professor of law at Pace University’s Haub School of Law, “We have a long way to go before the public can feel confident that investigations of police involved incidents are conducted without either explicit or implicit bias for the officers involved.”