TV image from the Derek Chauvin trial

Terry H. Schwadron

April 20, 2021

Interestingly, the closing arguments in the trial of ex-police officer Derek Chauvin in his trial on three murder charges in the death of George Floyd last May in Minneapolis never referred to race in the closing arguments — though that’s what the country thinks this is all about.

Instead, the arguments were rather clinical outlines of the case, just with a dollop of emotion — the contents of which we could have recited from having shared hours of live coverage.

Likely, we all feel more than ready to render a vicarious verdict even as a sequestered jury went off to deliberate on our behalf.

Indeed, the sole question seemed to be how often prosecutor would repeat “nine minutes and 29 seconds” and “believe your eyes” to underscore obvious arguments that Chauvin’s compassion-free knee on the neck was an irrefutable major contributor cause of death, legally as well as morally, with or without the full intent of creating that result. His argument honed closely to the requirements for conviction set forth by the presiding judge in his instructions.

The defense stood by a hope that someone might believe that the Chauvin was acting “reasonably,” that heart stoppage from drugs or carbon monoxide or a distracting crowd was equally responsible for Floyd’s death, or accept that Chauvin couldn’t notice that Floyd had died because the police officer was distracted tracking the huge threat of 14 people on the sidewalk yelling that Floyd wasn’t breathing.

Courtesy of the court and cable television, we’ve sat through nearly the entire trial proceedings, privvy even to material not shown the jurors. Mostly, we re-learned that prosecutors need tons of evidence when a police officer is finally put on trial, that legal and medical detail trump common sense and eyewitnesses, that the precision required from lawyers asking questions is so high that any slip can cause an argument to fall through altogether.

We’ve witnessed how difficult it is to convict even a rogue officer who ignores his training and police rules, whose own chief of police is willing to testify in court to decry his overly brutal actions.

Hey, the prosecutors need 12; the defense only needs one to hang the case.

We have no role in the jury decision, but we do have something to say about the nationwide reactions that will follow the verdict.

Anticipating The Outcome

However the verdict goes, it should be a somber day, not a celebration — as evidenced by pre-positioning of hundreds of National Guardsmen in Minneapolis, and some, including Rep. Maxine Waters, R-Calif., telling Minnesota protesters this weekend to “get more confrontational,” sparking a Twitter backlash.

Let’s remember that this killing was an evil, sad event, with a hard-won fight to even hold a trial in an environment where police officers are not regularly held to account. It had eyewitnesses, video galore, public denunciations, acknowledgment from the city of wrong-doing, and a ton of medical information bearing on the question of legal guilt.

Still, that the prosecution seems to have done a better job than the defense is a reflection of the nature of Chauvin’s actions more than the law, but getting to the end of the trial testimony shows that modern-day law is a procedural slog more than anything resembling Perry Mason justice.

From the sheer volume of evidence against Chauvin, it seems unlikely that the jury will not hold him responsible in the death. But prosecutors are giving the jury choices in the final charges, and the severity of punishment in the case may be as much a factor for jurors.

Whatever the outcome, we need to remember that it is for this case alone, not all policing in all cities in America. We have to remember that the long string of police escalations from routine stops that are resulting in harm or death to Black arrestees have no relevance to the outcome in this case.

It is unlikely that the country walks away from this event with any better resolve to reconsider what passes for policing in America or what can be done to keep routine incidents from escalating.

From what we saw in the streets of Minneapolis and many other cities last summer and in the streets of nearly Brooklyn Center, site of another police killing of a Black man in an “accidental” shooting, there’s not a lot of parsing going on about whether the prosecution can meet all the fine legal details required for conviction on particular charges.

Rather, the street calls for “justice” are Biblical and emotional, not legal.

Justified or not, we can expect that any verdict short of guilt for second-degree murder will fill city streets with rage.

In Washington

The oddity of an unrelated remark in answer to a reporter question to Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif. In nearly Brooklyn Center, Minn., encouraging street protest if there is a not a guilty plea in the Chauvin case, prompted a scold from the trial judge, and involuntary constriction, when the defense suggested it could prompt a mistrial finding. The judge said no, but added the remark could prompt an appeals issue.

The same remark was causing ripples in Congress, where Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy demanded that Speaker Nancy Pelosi punish Waters. Pelosi, too, said no.

Once the trial ends, the hope remains that Americans can use the lessons of this case to focus national attention on the continuing problems of racial divides rather than to continue to re-litigate this trial.

We have patterns of discrimination and abuse in policing, we have too-easy escalation to the use of weapons, and despite bans, we still have procedures in place for police like chokeholds and knees on necks that are out of touch with the street reality.

We can agree that whatever the verdict here, it will not move Senate Republicans to move to help pass the so-called George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which, among many other things, will make it easier to file charges against police officers by dropping an immunity shield. It would bar chokeholds and other procedures on a federal level and start a usable database of all police abuse incidents with tabulations showing race and ethnicity.

Meanwhile, we are seeing Washington politicians at odds over confirming Joe Biden’s nominations of Kristen Clarke as Civil Rights chief within the Justice Department, and other nominees of color. We’re seeing lots of pushback in investigating the Jan. 6 attacks on the U.S. Capitol by Trump-supporters buy trying to rope in equal-time criticism of Black Lives Matter protests and anti-social acts by Antifa, the loose association of left-leaning anarchist groups. We can’t get any substantial agreement about the role of institutional racism that laces our institutions, any more than we can discuss gun control.

We have voter suppression bills sitting right before us, re-translated as “election-integrity” bills.

And now we have the Biden administration restoring the idea of seeking “consent decrees” through the courts against police departments that show patterns of discrimination and abuse.

We have a long list of anti-racist musts to consider. Policing is just one arena, and this is just one case.