Chauvin verdict an example of American judicial system ‘getting it right’

A crowd gathers at George Floyd Square after a guilty verdict was announced at the trial of former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin for the 2020 death of Floyd on Tuesday, April 20 in Minneapolis. Photo: The Associated Press
By Robert C. Jones Jr.

A crowd gathers at George Floyd Square after a guilty verdict was announced at the trial of former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin for the 2020 death of Floyd on Tuesday, April 20 in Minneapolis. Photo: The Associated Press

Chauvin verdict an example of American judicial system ‘getting it right’

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
But more work, from community-police partnerships to the passage of legislation, needs to be accomplished, University of Miami experts and scholars contend.

On the streets of Minneapolis, the crowds gathered once again. And just as they had done over the course of several days last year, many among the throng held fists aloft and chanted the name George Floyd.

Only this time, their massing was done not in protest but in praise of a justice system that had just convicted former police officer Derek Chauvin of murdering the 46-year-old Floyd on a Minneapolis street corner last Memorial Day, his final breaths captured on video.

Chauvin, who kneeled on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, was found guilty Tuesday on two counts of murder and one count of manslaughter, a jury of seven women and five men reaching their verdict after 10 hours of deliberation over two days.

Their decision ends an emotional three-week trial that saw the prosecution call witnesses that ranged from medical and forensic experts to law enforcement officers and even Floyd’s brother and girlfriend. And ultimately, it was those factors that gave prosecutors an “unusually strong” case that Chauvin’s defense could not overcome, said Scott Sundby, professor of law and Dean’s Distinguished Scholar at the University of Miami School of Law. 

“They [prosecutors] had physical evidence; they had reliable eyewitnesses whose testimony was backed by video evidence and who were able to bring out on the witness stand the anguish they felt; they had a likeable victim whose friends and family clearly loved him; and they had police officers who were saying Chauvin’s acts were not a reasonable use of force,” Sundby explained.

Prosecutors, Sundby noted, also employed a preemptive strategy, using the testimony of medical experts to effectively defuse the defense’s argument—that Floyd’s drug use and heart condition contributed to his death—before they were even able to present it. “Prosecutors, of course, still had to weave all of this together into a coherent narrative for the jury, and they did so impressively. But they had an unusually deep array of irrefutable evidence from which to draw,” Sundby said.

He was not surprised by the speed at which the jury reached a decision. “The length of deliberation really varies with the nature of the evidence and the case,” Sundby explained. “Ten hours did not surprise me since this was not a whodunit and the video evidence of how the killing occurred was undebatable.”

After the verdict, Judge Peter Cahill revoked Chauvin’s bail, and sheriff’s deputies handcuffed the former police officer and led him out of the courtroom. He will be sentenced in eight weeks and could conceivably spend the rest of his life behind bars.

He could also face federal civil rights charges, as an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice is still ongoing.

“To convict, the government must prove three things,” said Tamara Rice Lave, professor of law and director of the Litigation Skills Program at the School of Law. “First, the defendant deprived a victim of a right protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States; second, the defendant acted willfully, and third, the defendant was acting under color of law.

"The first and third are easy," Rice Lave said. "Chauvin deprived Floyd of his right to live without due process of law, and he was an on-duty police officer at the time. It’s the second element that’s difficult. The government must prove that Chauvin knew what he was doing was wrong and against the law and decided to do it anyway. I would think that kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes when he posed no threat and was pleading to breathe would meet that burden, especially since Chauvin continued for another 2 minutes and 44 seconds after he learned that Floyd had no pulse.”   

What’s next?

Having convicted Chauvin, the state of Minnesota now turns its attention to prosecuting the three other former Minneapolis police officers charged in Floyd’s death.  J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane, and Tou Thao all face charges of aiding and abetting second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in Floyd’s death and will stand trial together beginning Aug. 23. 

Could the successful prosecution of Chauvin make it easier for prosecutors to convict the trio? “On the one hand, Chauvin’s guilty verdict will give prosecutors confidence that they can win what are otherwise notoriously difficult cases,” Lave said. “But on the other hand, the verdict will make it even more difficult to find fair and impartial jurors, especially those who are willing to question an officer’s judgement. It was hard enough to seat a jury in the Chauvin case. Imagine finding 12 people plus a few alternates who don’t have an opinion after the evidence presented by the prosecutor in the Chauvin trial.” 

While the Chauvin case set no obvious legal precedent, it did establish a historical one, offered law professor Donald M. Jones. “In the past, police officers have killed Blacks, particularly Black men, with impunity. Many people around the world wondered if this pattern would continue. But in this case, justice prevailed.” 

The case, Jones said, also reflects a shift in public attitudes toward police accountability. “It shows that no one is above the law. Because of this case prosecutors will likely have much more popular support, and the defendants will have to think twice about going to trial,” he said. 

While the verdict brought some measure of relief to activists who have called for an end to systemic racism in policing, efforts to achieve police reform must continue, Floyd’s family members and many politicians agreed. 

“We can’t leave this moment thinking our work is done,” President Joe Biden said in addressing the nation shortly after the verdict. He called on Congress to act on legislation to address systemic racism in policing and vowed to continue fighting for the passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. “It shouldn’t take a whole year to get this done,” Biden said. 

His sentiments were echoed by Alex Piquero, professor and chair of the Department of Sociology and a leading authority on criminology and criminal justice. “Some police reforms have been happening, and some are in the middle of happening,” said Piquero, noting a bill before the Florida Legislature that calls for better training of police to de-escalate potentially violent confrontations and a limit to the use of choke holds. 

“There is always a need for more training, de-escalation training, and trying to resolve highly-emotional events as safely and calmly as possible,” Piquero added. “Having communities work closely with police departments and with oversight boards and getting police departments to be more transparent with their training and data on use-of-force issues will also help. We need the police and the community to work in partnership.” 

Addressing such issues will require everyone to “recommit to rolling up our sleeves and doing our part,” said Anthony E. Varona, dean and M. Minnette Massey Professor of Law at the School of Law and member of the Deans Advisory Council, ABA Legal Education Police Practices Consortium

“It should be no surprise to any of us that our American system of justice is flawed. It can be slow, unfair, and prohibitively expensive to those who are most in need of justice,” Varona said. “Derek Chauvin’s conviction is an instance where the judicial system got it right. Anything less than a conviction would have engendered not only outrage, but also outright distrust in our judiciary. Our system appears to be working in the prosecution of Derek Chauvin. But it is just one case, involving one murder, by one bad police officer. We have much more work to do to address systemic racism in law enforcement and many other areas of American life.”

Noting the recent Daunte Wright shooting that occurred in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, only 10 miles from the courthouse where Chauvin stood trial, Donald Spivey, Distinguished Professor of History, said he hopes Chauvin’s conviction will at least slow the pace of police shootings of unarmed Blacks. 

“The systemic racism that had him keep his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes is still with us,” Spivey said. “Until America owns up to its true history and its legacy, substantial change will remain a dream deferred.”