After 15 days of evidence and arguments and 10 hours of deliberations, the trial of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin culminated Tuesday in a unanimous verdict of guilty on all three counts in the murder of George Floyd: second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter.
Although "Lady Justice" may be blind, on this day these five men and seven women certainly were not.
With this verdict, the 12-member jury sent a message to Chauvin: He broke the law, and his status as an officer would not protect him. It sent an even louder message to America’s broken system of policing: Although "Lady Justice" may be blind, on this day these five men and seven women certainly were not. As the prosecution asked of them, they “believed their eyes.”
The successful prosecution of Chauvin shows that accountability is not just a word; it shows that when police officers use excessive force and deviate from training and the policies and procedures of the department, they cannot continue to rely on a jury to protect them from the consequences of those bad acts.
This verdict is an inflection point for policing in America, where it has historically been difficult to charge a police officer for a crime, let alone to achieve a conviction.
For the first time in Minnesota state history, a white police officer has been held accountable for killing a Black man. But the Chauvin trial was one of other “firsts,” and one of unique facts and circumstances:
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, the first African American elected to statewide office in Minnesota, spearheaded the prosecution. The governor of Minnesota appointed him as the special prosecutor to take over the case from the Hennepin County attorney, who normally would have prosecuted the case.
The prosecution team consisted of 13 lawyers, two of whom were front and center during the entire trial: Jerry Blackwell and Steve Schleicher. Blackwell and Schleicher both work in private practice and were brought onboard to assist in the Chauvin prosecution. Like all of the outside counsel who were a part of the prosecution’s team, they worked on the case pro bono.
Some of the most pre-eminent physicians in the world also testified for free on behalf of the prosecution.
Some of the most pre-eminent physicians in the world also testified for free on behalf of the prosecution (expert medical witnesses typically charge a substantial hourly fee to testify in court). Dr. Victor Tobin, a world-renowned lung and critical care specialist, and Dr. Lindsey Thomas, a forensic pathology expert who trained the medical examiner who conducted an autopsy of George Floyd, both testified against Chauvin; neither doctor received payment.
The trial also took place against the backdrop of a pandemic. Everyone wore masks, people maintained a six-feet distance from one another, and plexiglass shields created a clear, but palpable, barrier separating witnesses, lawyers and the jurors. The trial was broadcast and livestreamed because the public was restricted from being physically present due to the pandemic, transporting the emotions and the graphic depictions of Floyd’s death into homes across the country.
Notably, and in an almost unprecedented move, several cops, both former and current, voluntarily testified against another cop. Even the Chief of the Minneapolis Police Department Medaria Arradondo testified against one of his now-former own.
Arrandondo, the first African American to hold the position of chief of the Minneapolis Police Department, the head of the use-of-force training at the department, and a parade of other officers all corroborated the prosecution’s argument that Chauvin used excessive force during the arrest of Floyd, and that Chauvin violated professional standards and department policies and procedures. Paramedics and fire rescue professionals, also considered to be a brothers-in-arms with law enforcement, also testified against Chauvin and supported the prosecution’s case.
In an almost unprecedented move, several cops, both former and current, voluntarily testified against another cop.
The video that started it all was prominently on display, all 9 minutes and 29 seconds of it. But that video was not from officer bodycam footage nor from official city street surveillance. The critical video evidence in this case that showed the world the murder of Floyd by Chauvin came from then-17-year old Darnella Frazier, who used her cellphone to film the encounter. Frazier was able to capture a crime while it was being committed in public and thanks to her, the prosecution was able to present compelling videographic evidence of Chauvin’s guilt.
The remaining former MPD officers Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng, also charged in the death of Floyd, are scheduled to be tried together Aug. 23. Their charges are different than those against Chauvin, but the jurors will see and hear a lot of the same evidence that was presented in the Chauvin trial.
After Chauvin was escorted out in handcuffs at the end of the day, one of the lingering questions that remains is whether this trial’s outcome was an outlier, or if it is a sign of more just verdicts to come when it comes to police misconduct that harms and kills Black people in America.
It remains to be seen what impact this inflection point has out in the field. But America is watching.