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Prosecutor Appears to Reference a Law That Makes the Death Penalty Possible for Cops in George Floyd Case


The U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota on Thursday evening said her office was investigating the in-custody death of George Floyd as a possible violation of federal law. Erica H. MacDonald said she was zeroing in a federal statute which criminalized conduct taken “under color of law” which deprived someone of his constitutional rights.

Though MacDonald did not directly cite the statute, it appears she is referring to 18 U.S.C. § 242. That statute states, in relevant part:

Whoever, under color of any law . . . willfully subjects any person in any State . . . to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States . . . and if death results from the acts committed in violation of this section . . . or an attempt to kill [the defendant] shall be fined under this title, or imprisoned for any term of years or for life, or both, or may be sentenced to death.

Read the entire statute here. It is complicated and cumbersome to analyze.

Though the statute carries a sentence up to death, it also carries a broad range of sentences: it could result imprisonment “for any term of years or for life.” Federal death sentences and federal executions are exceptionally rare. Plus, prosecutors are often apt to offer plea deals which take possible death sentences off the table.

MacDonald and Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said one struggle authorities are facing is that many of the witnesses who were present for the interactions between Floyd and at least four officers have not come forward or are not able to be identified. Both prosecutors pleaded for those witnesses to come forward. A conviction requires testimony, not simply video found online.

“I will not rush justice, because justice cannot be rushed,” Freeman said to those who demanded fast action. He noted that a rushed prosecution involving the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore resulted in acquittals; he said he would not allow such a rush to judgment to result in a case which backfired in the Floyd case.

MacDonald, when asked why an average citizen would have been arrested either at the scene or much earlier than the early evening hours of Thursday, said that the possible defendants’ roles as police officers added a complicated legal wrinkle. Because officers can use force while making arrests and enjoy some legal privileges that ordinary citizens do not enjoy, the case was more complicated and required additional analysis and review, she said.

MacDonald said she had planned to have more information to release but that such information would have to wait. She refused to elaborate when pressed, but her statement suggested that something in the investigation may have hit a snag.

Freeman said there was some evidence which did not support a charge or a conviction. He would not elaborate, citing ethics rules for attorneys which prevent the trying the facts of a case outside a courtroom.

[Image via screen capture from Fox News/YouTube.]

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Aaron Keller holds a juris doctor degree from the University of New Hampshire School of Law and a broadcast journalism degree from Syracuse University. He is a former anchor and executive producer for the Law&Crime Network and is now deputy editor-in-chief for the Law&Crime website. DISCLAIMER:  This website is for general informational purposes only. You should not rely on it for legal advice. Reading this site or interacting with the author via this site does not create an attorney-client relationship. This website is not a substitute for the advice of an attorney. Speak to a competent lawyer in your jurisdiction for legal advice and representation relevant to your situation.