When, almost a year ago, Derek Chauvin was arrested and charged with murder and manslaughter, I figured that there was essentially no chance that he would be acquitted. That was for two main reasons. The first was that virtually everyone on the planet had seen the video of him with his knee on George Floyd’s neck. All those long minutes aired on television, again and again and again. Ultimately, those images, their almost gravitational pull, had the power to subconsciously decide viewers, including those who would serve on the jury, about Chauvin’s guilt. You were there and so was I. So was everyone.
The second was the crowds in the streets, the destruction and mayhem immediately following Floyd’s death sent a clear message of what would happen in the event of any verdict but the one demanded by those crowds.
Eleven months later, the thing has come to pass and Chauvin has been found guilty and awaits sentencing. My guess is that he’ll be given the maximum allowed by law – 40 years.
I followed the trial in the print media and, to an extent, live. The verdict comes as no surprise. It’s a verdict that’s clearly supported by the evidence and is very unlikely to be overturned on appeal. From what I can gather, Judge Peter Cahill conducted the trial well enough to avoid reversible error. Derek Chauvin can look forward to a long stretch behind bars.
That has all taken place to universal applause and relief. But there is much more to see and consider.
For example, Judge Cahill refused a defense motion to change the venue of the trial, despite knowing full well the threat of violence and mayhem in the event of an acquittal. He also refused to sequester the jury and its members were well aware of the potential for that violence and mayhem. They were also doubtless aware that their identities and the whereabouts of their homes and jobs could be learned and disseminated so that they individually could be targeted. Yes, Cahill sealed their identities and contact information, but anyone who believes his action would have protected the jurors from being identified lives in a time before public media. Plus of course, no less than the President of the United States and one Congresswoman very publicly announced that anything but a conviction would not be the “right verdict.” In addition, the defense produced enough evidence that George Floyd died, not due to Chauvin’s knee, but to his own use of drugs and his underlying health condition, to produce in the mind of a reasonable juror a reasonable doubt about his guilt (at least of second-degree murder, if not of manslaughter). And finally, the jury, despite the defense’s evidence, took virtually no time in which to render its guilty verdict.
Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz put it bluntly:
[A]ll Americans who care about due process and liberty should be concerned that the jury verdict may have been influenced by, if not the thumb, maybe even the elbow of the outside pressures, the fears, the threats.
To those who care about the integrity of our system of justice, the things that happened on the margins of the Chauvin trial are alarming. Anyone with knowledge of this country’s history knows what mob “justice” looks like and that it is the very last thing we want or need. I fully understand that the mob was kept at a discrete distance from the Chauvin courtroom, such a distance in fact that no appellate court (whose judges may themselves consider the mob outside) will give its influence much weight. But the mob was there all the same and it may well have influenced the jurors and their willingness to ask themselves on the deepest level, the most important question of all, “Do I have a reasonable doubt?” Ask yourself, dear reader, in their place, what would you have done?
But now that it’s over and because the past is prologue, we need to take a hard look at exactly what happened. Another officer will kill another black man (she already has) and the demands for “justice” will be heard in the land (they are). There will be riots and there will be threats of retribution if the “right verdict” isn’t reached. And a jury will be impaneled whose members will know all too well the risk they, their businesses and communities run if they too carefully scrutinize the state’s evidence or take too seriously the phrase “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
In such an atmosphere, Heather MacDonald asks “whether any police officer can receive a trial free from mob pressure.” It’s a good question. By contrast, imagine for one second what would happen if the accused were not a white police officer but a black male civilian and people rioted in the aftermath of his arrest for a killing caught on camera and played again and again on the national news and social media, and mobs were demanding- and the president publicly called for- his conviction. Imagine that. Would we call it a “21st century lynching?”
The conviction of Derek Chauvin is clearly not the wrong verdict, but it also is, among countless other things, positive reinforcement for what went before it – mob violence and calls for vengeance. Whether the riots and demonstrations in fact influenced jurors remains an open question, but the perception that they did will only encourage the same behavior in the inevitable trials to come.
And let no one be confused. Today it’s the police, tomorrow it could be anyone, even you. Because, when the mob gets started, it doesn’t stop of its own accord. If it stops, it’s because it is stopped by someone or something with both the power and the courage to do so. With the president squarely on the side of the mob, who might that be?