Legal News Roundup: April 2021
This April has been a turbulent month with the long-awaited trial of Derek Chauvin for the death of George Floyd concluding with a historic verdict and apologies from the Bristol police for using COVID-19 as an excuse to ban the right to protest in the city. The conflict between the European Union and AstraZeneca over contractual delivery agreements about vaccine doses also ensued, while 130 lives were tragically lost in a storm on the Meditteranean because of the Libyan and Italian governments’ failure to launch rescue efforts. Here are the legal news highlights from April 2021.
Police Officer Derek Chauvin Found Guilty of Murdering George Floyd
A twelve-member jury in Minneapolis unanimously ruled on 20 April 2021 that Derek Chauvin was guilty of murdering George Floyd, a 48-year old black man, on 25 May 2020. Remembering the global outrage following Floyd's death in the summer of 2020, the world watched as Chauvin was found guilty of second-degree and third-degree murder and manslaughter.
As the maximum sentence for second-degree murder in Minnesota is 40 years, Chauvin faces up to 40 years in prison and is expected to appeal this sentence. Later in the year, three other officers may face trial on aiding-and-abetting charges.
The trial lasted for 15 days and 45 witnesses testified in front of the jurors. Witnesses ranged from Floyd’s girlfriend and daughter to the head of Minneapolis Police, Chief Medaria Arradondo, and forensic pathologist David Fowler. Chauvin did not testify as he invoked his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent throughout the trial and pleaded not guilty to charges of second-degree unintentional murder.
According to Philip M. Stinson's research at Bowling Green University, around 1000 people are killed by U.S police each year and less than two percent of these deaths conclude in charges being filed against officers. Chauvin's verdict is therefore historic and hopefully serves as a precedent to address police brutality.
AstraZeneca and the European Commission Legal Debate
The dispute over AstraZeneca’s delivery of vaccines to EU member states continues into April as Ireland’s health minister Stephen Donnelly said Dublin would support the European Commission in initiating a legal case against AstraZeneca. Donnelly said this case would be based on the fact that AstraZeneca failed to meet its contractual delivery agreements on vaccine doses for the months of April, May, and June 2021.
This comes after EU capitals were asked by the European Commission to back legal action against AstraZeneca when the company delivered just 30 million of the expected 120 million doses to EU member states in the first quarter of this year. No legal action has occurred yet and diplomats from Germany and France hesitated about legal action during a meeting on 21 April 2021. They fear a rushed decision could damage public trust in the COVID-19 vaccine.
AstraZeneca was also accused of stockpiling millions of doses in Italy in March but has denied such reports. The company will additionally face legal action from various European families who lost loved ones from blood clots forming shortly after they received their vaccine, including the family of Augusta Turiaco, an Italian woman who died after getting her AstraZeneca vaccine.
Johnson & Johnson Vaccines to Resume in the United States
On 23 April 2021, the 11-day national pause of the United States’ distribution of Johnson & Johnson vaccines was lifted by health officials. The federal government reported 15 cases of blood clots out of the almost eight million people who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. However, advisors decided the benefits of easing the COVID-19 pandemic outweighed the rare risk of blood clots. Indiana, New York, Missouri, Michigan, and Virginia are the first states to put measures and requirements in place to quickly resume Johnson & Johnson vaccinations.
Bristol Police Apologises for Protest-Related Arrests
Paula Richardson, Ros Martin, Taus Larsen, and Rowland Dye will receive apologies and substantial damages from Avon and Somerset Police after being detained on 25 January 2021. They were detained for standing in solidarity with those accused of toppling a statue of Edward Colston during last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.
After multiple court hearings, the settlement was agreed on 22 April 2021. This verdict comes nearly a month after riot police were brought into Bristol in response to protests over the heavily debated Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill. The Bristol police’s apology is thought to be the first time a police force has admitted to misapplying COVID-19 as a justification for banning protests.
Libyan and Italian Governments’ Failure to Answer Mayday Call Kills 130 People
One hundred and thirty people on board a rubber dinghy died in a storm on 21 April 2021 in the Central Mediterranean as Italian and Libyan authorities failed to respond to a mayday call. The Ocean Viking, one of the few remaining NGO rescue boats in the Mediterranean, received an anonymous signal for a dinghy that night and then asked Libyan authorities for rescue help as the dinghy was located in the Libyan search and rescue zone. The authorities reportedly refused to confirm whether they would help. The Ocean Viking crew also called the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center and the European border agency Frontex but received no response.
Once the storm had calmed on 22 April 2021, three merchant vessels searched the waters for six hours and found the remains of the dinghy but no survivors. As news of the tragedy surfaced on news outlets on Friday, Frontex told the Italian press it had issued a mayday signal to alert national rescue centers in Italy, Malta, and Libya as “required by international law". As Alarm Phone sent out the first alarm signal, the company claimed it repeatedly sent the dinghy’s GPS position to the European and Libyan authorities for 10 hours.
The United Nations’ Migration Agency has condemned both the Libyan and Italian governments’ neglect. Because the dinghy was found in Libyan territory, recovering those who died was the responsibility of the Libyan Maritime Rescue Coordination Center. Italy’s spokesman for the United Nations’ Migration Agency wrote on Twitter that, “the lack of an efficient patrolling system is undeniable and unacceptable”. The lives lost in this storm add to the 17,664 people who have lost their lives crossing the Central Mediterranean to reach Europe since 2014.