April 12, 2021

Thoughts as Prosecution in Chauvin Case nears the End

 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.

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