It was, in the end, an open-and-shut case.
Jurors in the Derek Chauvin trial took less than one full day of deliberations to decide that the officer had indeed committed second- and third-degree murder by depriving George Floyd of oxygen—just as the awful nine-minute video made chillingly clear.
From the witnesses who happened to be outside Cup Foods in Minneapolis to the police supervisors who refused to defend their man against the charge of excessive force, the televised trial convinced the jury—like most of America—that Chauvin was guilty.
His lawyer tried to create a sense of reasonable doubt—the only standard he had to reach—but that was an impossibly tall mountain to climb. A top CNN legal analyst had expressed amazement that Eric Nelson didn’t argue his client was innocent, but that was an inexplicable observation.
The media have been on high alert, especially with MSNBC and CNN televising most of the trial. The reason was underscored by the nightly protests in a nearby suburb over the deadly police shooting of Daunte Wright.
If Chauvin were to walk, even with a hung jury, the Minneapolis-St. Paul area was a powder keg. But any racial unrest, any outbreak of violence, would likely have spread across the country like wildfire. Instead, the crowd outside the courthouse cheered.
For some liberal and Black commentators on the air in the aftermath yesterday, the justice-was-done theme was not enough. They insisted, as the unemotional Chauvin was led off in handcuffs to remain in custody, that this was a mere blip, that it would do virtually nothing to stop such police misconduct.
It’s been nearly a year since Floyd’s death, since a White officer’s knee on a Black man’s neck became an indelible symbol of injustice in this country.
That doesn’t excuse for a moment people who rioted, who broke the law, who looted stores, who set cop cars on fire, in the name of George Floyd, despite pleas by his family. In Portland, Seattle, and many other cities, they made a mockery of the law and caused death and destruction.
But Floyd’s death will always be viewed as a turning point for the same reason the jury reached a quickie verdict. This wasn’t some gray-area case where an officer in a deadly situation, facing an armed or fleeing suspect, made a split-second decision that went wrong. Floyd was totally subdued, repeatedly said he couldn’t breathe, repeatedly pleaded for his life.
That was the reason the Chauvin trial didn’t spark the usual media debate in which one side argues that a police officer is being unfairly railroaded. Almost no one wanted to take Chauvin’s side. We’ve all seen the video, again and again.
President Biden made a misstep, in my view, by saying earlier that “I’m praying the verdict is the right verdict. The evidence is overwhelming in my view.” Jen Psaki deflected questions from AP reporter Jonathan Lemire by saying that Biden waited until the jury was sequestered and was showing compassion as someone who’s suffered loss after calling the family.
But the fact is the president of the United States should never even insinuate what should be the result of an ongoing criminal trial.
Last night Biden said Floyd’s killing “ripped the blinders off for the whole world to see” and called the verdict “a giant step forward” toward combatting “systemic injustice.” He made a pitch for the Democrats’ stalled police reform bill and wisely denounced agitators who use such controversies to commit violence. The president was also smart to let Kamala Harris speak first, and she said such killings were not only an issue for people of color but “a problem for every American.”
The verdict doesn’t wipe away the dumb remarks by Maxine Waters, who earlier declared Chauvin “guilty, guilty, guilty” and said that protesters should get “confrontational” if he got off. The 82-year-old congresswoman had no business making such inflammatory comments.
But it can’t be stressed enough that most police officers are courageous and compassionate. They put their lives on the line every day. We must fight against the tendency to let a few bad cops tarnish the vast majority of good officers.
But if the Floyd case has taught us anything, it is that African American men in this country have ample reason to fear that a routine traffic stop can escalate into a violent ending. There have been too many tragic incidents to believe otherwise. The federal government has done nothing on police reform, although many state and local officials have.
Finally, you have to wonder: If we didn’t live in an era where anyone can whip out a phone and record a police confrontation, if it were one person’s word against another, how many officers like Derek Chauvin would not even have been charged