By Connor Carlin
In 1991, a video tape surfaced showing five Los Angeles police officers taking turns with billy clubs to subdue a black man named Rodney King. Four of them went to trial, and all were acquitted. Los Angeles erupted. In 2020, the world saw a 10-minute video where, for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis police officer, kneeled on the neck of a black man named George Floyd until he was dead.
This time the riots did not wait for a verdict. From the film of Floyd’s tragic death, an international protest movement against police brutality and systemic racism was spawned, forcing local, state and federal officials to reconcile with the institution of policing. Now the city of Minneapolis and the nation as a whole waits with bated breath for the outcome of The State of Minnesota v. Derek Chauvin.
Chauvin’s ongoing trial is unique in the recent history of similar police officer-related trials, being Minnesota’s first entirely televised criminal trial, an indication of its larger significance. But he faces charges of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, which collectively would carry a sentence of over 40 years in prison — a historically high prosecutorial bar to reach, especially for police. Over the past decade, there have been a number of high-profile killings of unarmed black men by police officers: Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, Freddie Gray, Philando Castille and Michael Brown, all of which have fueled activist fervor demanding police reform and accountability.
According to a New York Times analysis, few of these cases have resulted in criminal charges, let alone been brought to trial, with only 121 officers across the country since 2005 having been arrested on murder or manslaughter charges for killings while on duty, despite around 1,000 officer-related deaths being reported annually. Even when convicted, an even more rare occurrence, officers often receive light sentences, such as Jason Van Dyke, the Chicago cop who killed 17-year-old Laquan McDonald and received a prison term of less than seven years.
The challenges to prosecuting police officers who kill civilians stem from their unique position in the legal system, their strong union protections from prosecution and benefit of the doubt due to the dangers of policing. Even in cases where the state makes a direct attempt to prosecute with the support of the populace, officers often escape accountability, such as in the case of Darren Wilson, the officer who shot 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. District Attorney Wesley Ball, elected expressly to get justice for Brown, could not surmount the high evidentiary standards needed to prosecute a policeman. The prosecution of Derek Chauvin faces similar challenges to securing a conviction, but its ramifications after a decade-long series of similar police killings have grown exponentially.
Chauvin’s trial began after two weeks of jury selection on March 29, and the prosecution and the defense have rested their cases as the trial moves into closing arguments. The jury, which according to BBC News consists of six white women, two black men, two mixed-race women, three white men and one black woman, has now heard 14 days worth of testimony from witnesses ranging from bystanders at the scene, medical and law enforcement experts and close family and friends of George Floyd.
The prosecution, depicting Floyd as a normal family man caught in a lethal police action which to the bystanders at the scene was anything but normal, has presented a three-pronged case against Chauvin. They have brought bystander witnesses who described psychological trauma and lingering guilt from the event, and medical and law enforcement experts who parsed the improper police procedures Chauvin used and caused Floyd’s death.
Prosecutors took pains to make clear that they are putting on trial one police officer who failed to do his job correctly, rather than law enforcement or law enforcement tactics in general. In his opening statement, prosecutor Jerry Blackwell explicitly stated that “one of the things this case is not about is all police or policing”.
The defense’s case has relied more on the latter framing. Defense counsel Eric Nelson, in both his cross-examination of the prosecution’s witnesses and the testimony of his own witnesses, has attempted multiple justifications for Chauvin’s actions. Nelson has sought to discredit eyewitness testimonies, and insists that the drugs fentanyl and methamphetamines found in Floyd’s system, along with prior heart ailments, were greater contributors to his death than Chauvin’s actions. Further, he argues that the aggression of the crowd of bystanders at the scene hindered police procedures and obstructed Chauvin from performing the tasks to save Floyd’s life.
Some of the most contentious moments of the case have been over the degree to which Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck led to his death, and whether he was following proper use of force protocols. While the defense has attempted to place Floyd’s drug use and past medical history front and center as proof that Chauvin was not at fault, few of the expert witnesses, including a pulmonologist, a cardiologist and multiple active police officers, have provided explicit support for this argument. Chauvin himself pleaded the Fifth, choosing not to testify after two days of defense testimony, and with closing arguments now approaching, the public awaits the verdict, and its significance to the future of policing in America.
A guilty verdict would provide a clear indication of justice for the Floyd family, but it is far less certain what it would mean for police conduct nationwide. Some commentators, such as Professor Simon Balto from The Guardian, have suggested that, given the prosecution’s focus on Chauvin as a uniquely bad officer who didn’t follow proper procedure rather than questioning the procedures themselves, a guilty verdict will not cause a sea of change, sequestering the case as one bad apple.
Regardless, a guilty verdict would be an improvement from the outright acquittal of officers in the King trial nearly 30 years ago. An innocent verdict, on the other hand, indicates we still have a long way to go. As a stark reminder, on April 11, just 10 miles away from where the Chauvin trial has not yet concluded, another unarmed black man was killed when Officer Kim Potter allegedly mistook her gun for her Taser and shot 20-year-old Daunte Wright to death during a routine traffic stop. Whether this case comes to trial, and whether justice is served in the Chauvin trial, Minneapolis and the nation have been forced to reckon with the role of policing in the future.