April 20, 2021
When I learned that the Chauvin jury had reached a verdict that was about to be announced, I turned my television to MSNBC. I listened to about an hour of commentary, with none of the speakers predicting what the verdicts would be. Someone noted that a quick verdict—the jury deliberated for about 11 hours—usually favors the defense.
My own expectation—certainly my hope—was that one or more of the verdicts would be guilty. Although it formally is the job of the prosecution to prove the defendant guilty, this trial was unusual. Because the whole country had seen videos of the police incident that was the subject of this trial, the commonsense conclusion had to be that Derek Chauvin caused the death of George Floyd. Despite its formal task to provoke reasonable doubt, the defense, in practice, had an uphill climb. The eyes and ears of most people led them to believe that Chauvin was guilty.
I am relieved by the verdicts, which are certainly the verdicts I would have subscribed to were I on the jury. On the other hand, conviction of white police officers on murder charges, particularly when the victim is back, is rare. In this case, the evidence for conviction was overwhelming and transparent. Not guilty verdicts would surely have been unjust, but, given the judicial history of the United States, not completely surprising.
We can hope that this trial represents a turning point. It was a trial in which police testified against police and one in which justice was serviced. It remains to be seen whether the next police killing whose trial involves less evidence and police testimony will also serve justice.
Today’s verdicts are no consolation for George Floyd, of course. We can but hope that his murder will inspire more justice to be served in future trials of errant cops. That would, perhaps, be a compensatory legacy.
April 12, 2021
As I write this, the state’s case against former police officer Derek Chauvin is nearing its end. The last prosecution witness is use-of-force expert Seth Stoughton, a criminal justice law professor, who apparently has analyzed the last minutes of George Floyd’s life instant by instant.
In light of my last post, “To Protect and to Serve,” the most interesting thing Stoughton has said concerns the concepts of threat and risk. Threat, he explained, necessarily involves the ability of a person to cause harm to an arresting officer, the opportunity to do so, and the apparent intention to do so. Police officers often justify shooting civilians by saying that they felt threatened. But Stoughton defined risk as simply a situation involving a potential threat. “While threat can justify use of force, risk can’t,” he said. Too often, I think, officers react not to threat but to risk they find uncomfortable.
In the case of Derek Chauvin’s handling of the arrest of George Floyd, it is impossible to see a prone, handcuffed, and weighted down George Floyd as representing a threat. He doesn’t even appear to represent any sort of risk to the officers on the scene.
The questioning of Seth Stoughton clarifies what happened to Floyd. He did not resist arrest, but he resisted being placed in the back of a squad car. He was, he claimed, claustrophobic. He was then removed from the squad car and placed on the street. This raises the question of what the arresting officers were intending to do. Were they trying to convince him to get back into the car? Were they eventually going to order a more spacious vehicle in which to place Floyd? Or were they just intending to kill Floyd to get him off their hands?
If Derek Chauvin is put on the stand—this hardly seems a good strategy by the defense, but it might be done as a last-ditch effort to avoid an inevitable conviction—I would hope that the prosecution will ask him what was his intended end game.
April 4, 2021
Watching the Minneapolis trial of Derek Chauvin, it is natural to ask what Chauvin’s defense can possibly be. The prosecution has offered witnesses to George Floyd’s life and his final day. Floyd was hardly a perfect human being, but he has at least been portrayed by witnesses as a sympathetic character. We have heard from his girlfriend. We have heard from bystanders appalled by the treatment he received at the hands of the Minneapolis police. We have been told that Chauvin’s behavior was unauthorized and uncalled-for. And, of course, we have seen the horrible videos.
Unless Chauvin’s defense team can pull an unexpected rabbit out of a hat, only three arguments appear available:
- Police have a difficult job, and civilians cannot fairly second-guess them. Their actions are beyond question.
- George Floyd had medical problems, used drugs, and succumbed to treatment that an ordinary (i.e., healthy) person would have survived.
- George Floyd was a big strong man—a man much larger than Derek Chauvin—and therefore a threat to the policeman. Extraordinary means were required to subdue him.
That we shouldn’t second-guess police actions is a conventional argument that is wearing thin in this age of Black Lives Matter. Too many unarmed black males are dying at the hands of police. The argument that the police must be given license to do anything they believe necessary in the line of duty simply won’t fly with the public these days, and I suspect it will be similarly unpersuasive to the jury. The defense will likely bring out this argument anyway, on the theory that it can’t hurt. (But it actually might.)
The defense is probably going to offer the explanation police who kill most often trot out—that the defendant felt threatened and did what he—always he—had to do to protect himself. We are seeing the jury being prepared for this argument: George Floyd is big—and, implicitly, black and threatening—and Derek Chauvin is small and white. But the usual logic doesn’t work here. Floyd was immobilized on the ground and handcuffed. Anyone can see that he posed no credible threat to Chauvin or anyone else. Chauvin did not appear to be afraid of Floyd; instead, he seemed indifferent to his fate and in no hurry to conclude that enough force applied to the supposed miscreant was enough. But Chauvin or an attorney on his behalf will, no doubt argue that he felt threatened and did what he needed to do for his own safety.
Police unions nearly always defend their members, irrespective of how outrageous their behavior may have been. It is gratifying that, in the Chauvin trial, police officials are actually testifying against a police defendant. We can hope that this is the start of a trend. Nonetheless, it is hard to get twelve Americans to agree on much of anything these days, and the verdict of the jury is very much in doubt.
Pray for justice for George Floyd.
April 3, 2021
Nominally, Donald Trump has lost his hold on power. His ability to influence policy is now minimal and will only be diminished as the former president is increasingly occupied with his very considerable legal troubles. He nonetheless commands a large following. One must ask what attributes Trump has that account for such affection.
It is easy to list, at least partially, traits that may be appreciated by Trump’s followers. Which of these account for the esteem in which he is held? Is his