George Floyd and Daniel Prude: Similar deaths, different legal outcomes
Why did one case end with a police officer guilty of murder, and the other with a grand jury declining to indict? "The criminal justice system isn't like McDonald's," a Rochester lawyer says.
Daniel Prude and George Floyd died less than two months apart after encounters with police officers in two different American cities.
Rochester police officers pinned Prude, naked and handcuffed, to the ground for about two minutes on a frigid street on March 23, 2020. Prude lost oxygen to his brain and died a week later.
Floyd died that May while Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin restrained Floyd, who was handcuffed. Chauvin pressed his knee forcefully on Floyd's neck for more than nine minutes.
Those moments between the Black men and the white police officers were captured on video, triggering a wave of social justice protests. Floyd's and Prude's names intertwined in chants demanding accountability and reform in policing.
The court system provided vastly different outcomes with the cases.
A grand jury decided not to indict the three officers who pinned Prude to the ground with a restraint that a medical examiner decided contributed to his death. In Minneapolis, Chauvin, who kept his knee heavy on Floyd's neck for over nine minutes, went to trial and was convicted of murder and manslaughter this week by a jury.
"The criminal justice system isn't like McDonald's," said local lawyer Donald Thompson, who has represented Prude's brother in an earlier civil action against Rochester and its police. "You go to McDonald's in Tokyo, Toronto, Cincinnati, you get the same Big Mac."
But there is no assurance that similar criminal allegations will receive similar treatment in different cities, counties, or states. "Maybe the criminal justice system should be more like McDonald's," Thompson said.
Lawyers for the Rochester police who restrained Prude say there are clear differences in the two cases, and those distinctions led to the contrasting results. The Attorney General's Office, which presented the case against Rochester police to the grand jury, also has come under criticism and contends that the deaths and actions of police are dissimilar with each case.
"There are major distinctions, and I think unfortunately a lot of people who want to use what happened to Mr. Prude to drive their own agenda have tried to conflate the two incidents," said Matthew Rich, an attorney for the Rochester police officers.
Two police restraints, two deaths
On March 23, 2020, Rochester police encountered Prude naked on the street, having broken windows and in the throes of a mental health crisis. His brother had told police that he suspected Prude had imbibed the hallucinogenic phencyclidine, or PCP, which was found in Prude's blood in his autopsy.
Prude was handcuffed behind his back, and his head covered with what is called a "spit hood" to prevent him from spitting on officers, who believed that Prude might have COVID-19.
The police at one point held Prude to the ground as they waited for an ambulance. One officer used what's called a tripod pose, placing his hands on the side of Prude's head, and another officer kept his knee on Prude's lower back.
Prude lost oxygen to his brain and died a week later. Dr. Nadia Granger, the county's medical examiner, decided he had been asphyxiated, while also attributing his death to the presence of PCP and what is known as "excited delirium."
Excited delirium is a controversial diagnosis that includes heightened physical response — some describe it as "superhuman strength" — and an increase in body temperature and irrational behavior. Skeptics of excited delirium say it is often used to explain the deaths of men and women who die while restrained by police or corrections officers.
Floyd — who had fentanyl in his system, according to the autopsy — was suspected of using a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes at a corner store in Minneapolis.
George Floyd:Derek Chauvin found guilty. Rochester reacts
Attorney Michael Schiano, who also represented a Rochester police officer before the grand jury, said "there are very clear distinctions" between the Floyd and Prude deaths. The Rochester police responded to an uncertain mental health crisis, with an unstable individual who had imbibed PCP, Schiano said.
The Minneapolis police answered a typical criminal complaint — a counterfeit allegation — and Floyd did not behave with the same erraticism as did Prude. The Floyd case "was a simple arrest, and it went too far," Schiano said.
Rich said the differences between the drugs shouldn't be ignored. PCP is linked to aggressive behavior, and Rochester police suspected Prude had used the hallucinogen, based on his actions and what they had been told by his brother.
"PCP is a drug that essentially sets a person's system on fire, and it sends a person's system into overdrive," Rich said.
That is different from the drug in Floyd's system, he said.
"Fentanyl is a drug that is meant to sedate," he said. "It's meant to suppress pain. It's meant to dull senses.
'Excited delirium' debate
Chauvin's defense lawyers also turned to excited delirium and the presence of drugs as possible causes of Floyd's death.
State Attorney General Letitia James has been criticized for using an expert before the grand jury who typically testifies in defense of police. That expert, Dr. Gary Vilke, was not a witness in the Chauvin prosecution, but he said in an interview this year that he doubted Chauvin's pressure killed Floyd.
"There's bad optics there," he told the Minneapolis television station KARE 11 about Chauvin's use of force.
Grand jury records released last week show that Vilke testified that he did not think the actions of Rochester police caused Prude's death. He blamed the death on the PCP and excited delirium. The pressure from police might have prevented Prude from injuring himself and others, Vilke testified.
Chicago attorney Matthew Piers, who is representing Daniel Prude's children in a lawsuit against Rochester and the police, said that "both of these cases are cases of horrific and quite obvious police misconduct."
"I don’t think that there's much to be gained from trying to evaluate which one is worse," he said. "There are aspects of Floyd's death that are worse, and there are aspects of Prude's death that are worse."
Piers said the New York Attorney General's choice of an expert who is a firm defender of excited delirium possibly ensured there would be no indictment.
"One difference is (Minnesota Attorney General) Keith Ellison sought a conviction and got one and the New York Attorney General sought to sweep Prude under the rug," Piers said.
The New York Attorney General's Office has maintained that the differences between the Prude and Floyd deaths are numerous, and a comparison is unfair. Also, officials in the office note that excited delirium is often cited as a cause of deaths with restraint, and that the medical foundation behind the diagnosis can't be ignored. To ensure a robust fact-finding process at the grand jury, an expert like Vilke was needed, the office has said.
"The purpose of impaneling this grand jury was to investigate the death of Daniel Prude, and we did everything in our power to conduct a fair and thorough investigation and to present all of the evidence and facts in this case," a spokeswoman for James said in a statement Friday.
The office also took the unusual step of seeking the release of the grand jury records, a push for transparency with the criminal case, according to Attorney General James. Grand jury records typically remain sealed, and the Prude records provide a rare look behind grand jury curtains, a release of records that could become a historic precedent.
Two other experts called by the Attorney General's Office, including Granger, did link the asphyxiation to police restraint.
Attorney Thompson said the choice of Vilke clearly muddied the testimony before the grand jury and made an indictment unlikely. Vilke's history of typically finding no fault in police actions should have been a warning for prosecutors, Thompson said.
"They used a defense expert who said this is entirely okay and the police did him a favor by holding (Prude) down," Thompson said.
Questions about police training
At the Minneapolis trial, police officers and even the police chief provided crucial testimony saying that Chauvin had used excessive and unnecessary — and ultimately deadly — force. As other officers looked on, Floyd said multiple times that he was struggling to breathe.
"Mr. Floyd clearly died because of the restraint and he was denied oxygen," said Rochester police attorney Rich. "He enunciated to the officer during the restraint and nothing was done to remedy it."
The testimony from police colleagues about Chauvin's knee-to-the-neck actions are clearly different than what happened with Prude, Rich said.
Rochester police have said the type of restraint used on Prude was by-the-book and taught by the state Division of Criminal Justice Services, or DCJS.
DCJS officials have said that the training did not recommend the restraint for handcuffed prone individuals, but lawyers for the police say nothing in the training implied that the techniques should not be used in those cases.
The grand jury, which voted 15 to 5 against an indictment, saw that the Rochester officers used what they'd learned in training, Rich said. "They employed and utilized techniques that were in line with their training," he said,
The restraint of Floyd was more than nine minutes, compared to about two minutes with Prude. When Prude began to vomit, officers tried to physically help him, Rich said.
The officers involved with Prude also sought emergency help for him, while Chauvin was slow to do so as Floyd died.
Lawyers for the Prude family say the police were casual and joking about Prude's condition and mental health dilemma. He clearly suffered beneath the pressure, and no training would have suggested that the restraint continue as a man fought to breathe, they say.
Instead of "responding to the fact that their weight on his body was asphyxiating (Prude)" the Rochester officers "persisted in their use of deadly force," argues the lawsuit from Prude's children.
Civil case ongoing
Rev. Lewis Stewart, who heads the United Christian Leadership Ministry, said Attorney General James is expected to meet remotely with the organization next month, and questions will surely arise about the grand jury in the Prude homicide.
Stewart said he sees "some glaring similarities" between the deaths of Prude and Floyd.
"For me, it was death by asphyxiation (with both), and it was also neglect by the police," Lewis said. "That's why I have said that the officers involved should have been convicted if Letitia James had steered the grand jury in the way prosecutors usually do."
Had the officers been indicted, the very same issues raised at the grand jury — did excited delirium cause the death and was the restraint in line with training — would surely have been central at trial, and the defense, which is not present at a grand jury, would have been forceful in raising those questions.
How the civil courtroom resolves the Prude family lawsuit remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the city of Minneapolis has agreed to pay Floyd's family $27 million.
The police connected with Prude's death have been suspended and are still facing possible termination. Though there are already thousands of pages made public about Prude's fatal encounter with police, the civil lawsuit could still deliver new revelations.
Prude's death will continue to be the focus of the civil suit, while more officers involved in Floyd's death are scheduled to be criminally tried this summer.
Despite the different outcomes, the deaths of Prude and Floyd will forever be linked with an era of civil rights that could lead to monumental shifts in policing in the United States.
After the grand jury voted not to indict the Rochester officers, one juror commended how seriously the Attorney General prosecutors had approached the case.
"You worked very hard and I'm sure nobody took it lightly," the juror said. "It was a very serious case.
"It's horrible what happened to him."
Contact Gary Craig at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 585-258-2479. Follow him on Twitter at gcraig1.