Ryan Williams is the top homicide prosecutor for the division created by State Attorney Brad King to handle high profile murder cases, including those taken away from State Attorney Aramis Ayala who refused to seek the death penalty. Williams sat down with Florida Daily for a candid discussion on how to prosecute the George Floyd case and how he would handle similar race issues if he is elected to be the state attorney for Orange and Osceola Counties.
Noting that former officer Derek Chauvin was first charged with third-degree murder, Williams called it “a floor” for the charges he could face. Those charges have been upgraded to include second-degree murder.
“Third-degree murder sounds like a hybrid between second-degree murder and manslaughter in Florida because it requires a depraved mind and heart, but also it is discussing without the intent to kill. To me, that is the bare minimum of what the prosecutors will be able to prove,” Williams said.
Williams called Floyd’s death “shocking, abhorrent, and sad.” He watched the video and told Florida Daily it was “hard to get through the entire thing.” Williams said he hopes prosecutors look at the other officers to help get a conviction on the new upgraded charges against Chauvin.
“The prosecution also needs to look carefully at them as witnesses because they might have more information and would need to use them as witnesses going in forward,” Williams added.
The key to getting a conviction on murder charges may lie with the intent, something that will be difficult to prove.
“What I hope they are doing is looking for some evidence that the officer’s intent might have been higher,” Williams told Florida Daily, adding, if Chauvin were to testify, his words could help get him out of a higher charge, but the floor is still third-degree murder.
“His best-case story if he chooses to testify would be that ‘I put my knee on his neck for officer safety, and I wasn’t exactly sure. I didn’t intend to kill him’, but he died as a result,” Williams said.
Williams said prosecuting the other officers on the scene could be much more difficult. He was not 100 percent up to speed on Minnesota law but, “in Florida, to my knowledge, you don’t have an obligation to step in and stop something, not a legal one.”
Similar to the way teens in Cocoa could not be prosecuted when they watched a man drown while laughing at him, there is a moral obligation to stop a fellow officer from harming a suspect but perhaps not a legal one.
“I think that they had a duty to act. Whether that duty and their failure to act was criminal, I don’t know the answer to yet, and I would want more information,” Williams told Florida Daily.
The autopsy could be another big part of the defense’s argument. Since the state’s autopsy does not list asphyxiation as the primary cause of death, Williams said the defense will be all over this fact.
“The defense is going to try and attack the causation. In other words, they are going to say ‘well, yes, my client put his knee on the victim’s neck, but that’s not what actually caused his death.’ It was actually an underlying condition. I don’t think that is going to fly with a jury because I think it is pretty clear, but it is a fact that will muddy the waters and allow the defense attorney to try to distract the jury from the actions of the officer,” Williams said.
Williams believes even the autopsy done by Floyd’s family which shows he died from asphyxiation will come under scrutiny from the defense team.
“There are now two separate autopsies, and that is good for the defense attorney because there is a conflict in two different facts, and as a prosecutor you want that to be as clean and simple, and straight forward as possible,” Williams said.
Back home in Central Florida, Williams said he is encouraged by law enforcement’s near-universal contempt for how the officers treated Floyd and the way everyone’s condemned it. Williams said he wants to make several changes to the Orange Osceola State Attorney’s Office if he wins. He said there should be a single prosecutor responsible for all felony prosecutions in high crime areas so lasting relationships can be built. He also wants to release use of force reports on area police departments monthly. In the meantime, Williams said he plans to keep working to lock up criminals and heal wounds.
“I understand to the extent that I can the frustration people feel about the fact that this continues to happen,” Williams said.
Reach Mike Synan at firstname.lastname@example.org.