Hmm: George Floyd defendant agreed to third-degree murder plea -- but Barr torpedoed it

Would a quick sentencing for Derek Chauvin on a murder charge have stopped much of the inner-city violence and rioting that took place over the summer? Or would it have amplified both exponentially? Alas, we will never know the answer to that question — but we might have had William Barr not intervened. Then-AG Barr refused to agree to refrain from filing federal civil-rights charges in the case as a condition of the deal, deciding instead to let the state make its case first.

This does tell us something about how strong that case will end up being:

As soldiers prepared to take to the streets, the officer, Derek Chauvin, believed that the case against him was so devastating that he agreed to plead guilty to third-degree murder. As part of the deal, officials now say, he was willing to go to prison for more than 10 years. Local officials, scrambling to quell the community’s swelling anger, scheduled a news conference to announce the deal.

But at the last minute, according to new details laid out by three law enforcement officials, the deal fell apart after William Barr, the attorney general at the time, rejected the arrangement. The deal was contingent on the federal government’s approval because Chauvin, who had asked to serve his time in a federal prison, wanted assurance that he would not face federal civil rights charges.

An official said Barr worried that a plea deal, so early in the process and before a full investigation had concluded, would be perceived as too lenient by the growing number of protesters across America. At the same time, Barr wanted to allow state officials, who were about to take over the case from the county prosecutor who has had tense relations with Minneapolis’s Black community, to make their own decisions about how to proceed.

The New York Times, which first reported the story overnight, notes that state prosecutors might end up regretting that choice. Now that Chauvin’s case has been severed from the other three defendants, they can coordinate better on defense strategies:

Legal experts, and lawyers involved in the case, say that Judge Cahill’s decision to hold separate trials could benefit Mr. Chauvin — whose lawyer had pushed for a separate trial — because he will no longer have to face the possibility of the other three men pointing the blame at him.

In fact, that has already been playing out behind the scenes: Defense attorneys for those former officers have shifted from crafting strategies built on establishing the culpability of Mr. Chauvin to offering their help to his defense. If Mr. Chauvin were acquitted — a possibility that many officials fear could lead to more upheaval and second-guessing about the failed plea deal — the other three men would likely not face trial at all.

It’s tough to understand why such a deal would have not been accepted by Barr and state prosecutors. For political reasons, they want a murder charge (as opposed to manslaughter) to stick. Getting a conviction on Chauvin would have made it easier to proceed against the other three officers, at least incrementally. The civil-rights charges would be unnecessary if Chauvin did serious time. So why not take the deal?

Too soon, Justice officials tell NBC News:

A former Justice Department official confirmed the failed deal to NBC News, saying that both politically appointed and career Department of Justice officials had rejected the idea.

“His lawyers were trying to rush us, and we didn’t want to be rushed,” the official said.

Minnesota officials downplayed the story, claiming no deal was ever reached in the first place:

Lacey Severins, a spokeswoman for the Hennepin County attorney’s office, which was handling the case at the time, said: “As is typical in many cases, early negotiations can occur between all relevant parties involved. Many times, a defendant will explore their options with a negotiation. It is also common for these types of discussions to happen in the beginning of a case and then have no agreed upon negotiations develop. This case was no different. Negotiations were discussed, nothing developed.”

Clearly no deal actually developed, since no deal took place. It certainly sounds as though Chauvin’s team was ready to capitulate, as long as Chauvin served his time in federal prison rather than around convicts he’d help send to state prison and the DoJ didn’t bring a separate case on civil rights.

If the issue was the popular reaction to a quick deal, that’s understandable but not necessarily supportable. In some communities, rioting and violence are still taking place in the wake of the death of George Floyd. The trials will no doubt spark more unrest here in the Twin Cities this spring and summer, and if Chauvin doesn’t get convicted of some form of murder, it’s going to be National Guard time here in Minneapolis and Saint Paul all over again. There was at least a chance that a quick admission on a murder charge could have had a calming effect, at least locally.

That might have been a good enough chance to warrant testing it out. Now, the DoJ had better hope that Minnesota prosecutors don’t leave them with a massive new headache by coming up short next month.