Law & the Courts

The Message of the Chauvin Verdict

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is handcuffed after a jury found him guilty of all charges in the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minn., April 20, 2021. (Pool via Reuters)

The swift verdict reached by a Minneapolis jury on Tuesday afternoon affirms what most Americans thought upon watching the excruciating recording of the last nine minutes of George Floyd’s life. He was killed by an excessive use of force by Derek Chauvin and three other subsequently fired police officers.

The jury convicted Chauvin of two murder counts and, inexorably in light of those verdicts, of a lesser count of manslaughter, which is duplicative and will be irrelevant to his sentence.

There is cause for concern about whether Chauvin received a fair trial, an issue that is separate from the strength of the evidence, and one that the trial judge, Peter Cahill, acknowledged just after the jury retired to begin deliberating late Monday afternoon. By then, the notoriously irresponsible congresswoman, Maxine Waters, had threatened unrest unless the jury returned a verdict of “guilty, guilty, guilty.” President Biden, who scorched his predecessor for unhinged commentary about pending cases, piled on Tuesday, observing that he was “praying” for a conviction.

The defense complained from the start that Chauvin could not get a fair trial in Hennepin County; and as if to prove its point, the City of Minneapolis paid the Floyd family a $27 million settlement in the middle of jury selection. The judge declined to change venue, and later refused to sequester the jury, even after the tragic accidental killing of Daunte Wright by a police officer in a Minneapolis suburb.

Nevertheless, the appellate courts will have to weigh these matters against the damning recording, and determine whether the public pressure had a decisive influence given the strength of the evidence. Even allowing that Floyd’s arrest was lawful (it was triggered by his passing of a counterfeit $20 bill, a comparatively trivial offense, although the cops found him high on drugs behind the wheel of a car), and even acknowledging that he resisted arrest (not threatening the police, but forcibly refusing to comply with their effort to take him into custody), there is simply no excusing the manner of his detention.

Floyd was maintained on the hard street in the prone position, handcuffed from behind. While police may at first have been skeptical of his claims that he could not breathe (since he had started saying so, as suspects are known to do, before the cops restrained him), it gradually became obvious that his breaths were becoming shallow. He complained that he was in agony. His breathing stopped. His pulse stopped. Horrified bystanders, who never threatened police, warned the cops that he was not resisting and no longer responsive.

Yet Chauvin would not relent. He and his fellow officers continued to hold Floyd down — Chauvin, now infamously, with his knees on Floyd’s neck and chest area. This, the medical experts testified, is what principally killed him: The loss of oxygen that caused his brain and heart to cease functioning.

If there is a silver lining in such a tragic story, it is about policing. Among the most compelling witnesses in the case were police officials. What had to have impressed the jury was how far Chauvin strayed from standard detention procedures. Police are trained that, if they must use a prone restraint, they are to roll the suspect onto his side as soon as he is secured — and especially if he has stopped resisting — in order to facilitate breathing.

American cops also go by the credo, “In my custody, in my care.” No matter how serious the crime, no matter how loathsome the suspect, they are responsible for the wellbeing of the people they detain. If a detainee falls ill, they are duty-bound to administer care — and trained to do so as “first responders.” If a detainee loses his pulse, they are trained to begin CPR immediately.

Chauvin did none of these things. As prosecutors said, “He wouldn’t let up, and he wouldn’t get up.” The police witnesses expressed a healthy disdain for that. They know nothing makes a good cop’s job harder than a bad cop.

George Floyd died because Derek Chauvin was a bad cop. We are, of course, mindful that police have a very tough job, dealing with uncooperative and often dangerous suspects, many with drug-abuse and health problems — such as the ones Floyd had, which likely contributed to his death. But the police power to use necessary force, which must necessarily be superior force, never justifies excessive force. That is the message of this emphatic verdict.

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