Derek Chauvin Trial: Week Four (Commentaries)

Week Four, as summarized in a recent post, included opening statements by the prosecution and defense and the testimony of 19 prosecution witnesses. [1} Now we look at some of the published commentaries about those developments.

                                                            Washington Post’s Opinions [2]

The Washington Post published at least four opinion articles last week about the trial; two were editorials; the others by two of their columnists, Eugene Robinson and Radley Balko.

Editorial (March 29).This editorial started with noting that the first witness, a 911 dispatcher who watched the arrest in real time on a surveillance camera, testified, “My instincts were telling me that something’s wrong” and, therefore, reported the situation to a superior officer. “

“Her instincts — as the world knows from its own viewing of video footage of the May 25 events at that Minneapolis street corner — proved to be terrifyingly and tragically accurate. Something is clearly wrong when an arrest for allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill ends up with a 46-year-old Black man gasping for air, pleading for help — and dying.”

“We hope no jury can accept that a police officer would be trained to be so willing to cause harm and so indifferent to human suffering.”

Editorial (April 1). This editorial said, “it is painfully clear that Floyd was not the only victim that May day in Minneapolis. Those who were forced to stand by helplessly and watch as the 46-year-old Floyd died, gasping for breath, despite their desperate pleas to police, have been forever changed.”

“As is too often the case when police interact with minority communities, their response was not to listen, not to help, but to respond to an imagined, nonexistent threat. Indeed, Mr. Chauvin’s attorney even suggested that it was the bystanders who were responsible for Floyd’s death. The crowd was hostile and posed a threat, Eric Nelson told the court, and that diverted police’s attention from Floyd.”

Eugene Robinson’s Opinion. This article says the evidence shows how Derek Chauvin “saw his alleged victim: as a dangerous, ‘sizable’ Black man who had to be controlled, subdued and forced to submit. The message Chauvin sent with his actions wasn’t intended for Floyd alone, and it’s one Black Americans have heard for centuries.”

“Chauvin didn’t see Floyd as a citizen suspected of a minor, nonviolent crime or as the gentle ‘mama’s boy’ Floyd’s girlfriend, Courtney Ross, described. To Chauvin and the other officers, Floyd was guilty from the start — guilty of inhabiting an imposing Black male body, a circumstance that has always been a punishable offense in this country. “

“Attempts by Chauvin’s defense attorney, Eric Nelson, to paint the onlookers who watched Floyd’s killing in horror as some kind of angry mob are laughable. Surveillance video played in court shows that the number of witnesses could be more accurately described as ‘a handful” ‘than as ‘a crowd.’ They were White and Black, male and female, very young and old. They invariably complied when the officers told them to back up and remain on the sidewalk. They have testified that their voices became progressively louder and more urgent, and the insults they directed at Chauvin more pointed, only because they saw Floyd’s condition deteriorating and feared they were watching a man being killed before their eyes.”

“When I see that look Chauvin gave the onlookers, I see more than heartlessness. I see arrogance and superiority. I see him teaching an old lesson about who has power and who does not, about whom the law protects and whom it doesn’t. I see Chauvin demonstrating that he, not Floyd, got to decide whether Floyd was allowed to breathe.”

Radley Balko’s  Opinion. The article opens with “atypical facts”  about this trial: up to 95 percent of criminal cases are resolved with a plea bargain without a trial; about 80 percent of criminal defendants cannot afford to hire a defense lawyer like Erik Nelson; and most police officers are not prosecuted for excessive force or even disciplined for same; many jury verdicts, when there are trials, often turn on factors other than the evidence.

An acquittal for Derek Chauvin, should that happen, “would add only to the largely accurate perception that the powerful and protected get access to a different sort of justice than everyone else. Race looms large in all of this as well. An acquittal will only further ingrain in Black Americans the notion — backed by plenty of evidence — that the system doesn’t value their lives and rights as much as those of White Americans. The verdict also will of course matter immensely to Floyd’s family, friends and supporters. And I don’t mean to diminish how important it is that those victimized by police abuse feel that the justice system represents them, too.”

But a conviction of Chauvin “won’t stop bad cops from continuing to abuse their power with impunity. It won’t stop police from disproportionately stopping, searching and subjecting Black people to force. It won’t reduce fatal police shootings. And it won’t give poor people better access to justice. A guilty verdict might deter police from using the tactic Chauvin used on Floyd, at least for a while, but it’s unlikely to deter other instances of excessive force or abusive behavior.”

Nevertheless, Balko concludes, “Chauvin’s trial matters in the way any trial matters — it demands a verdict driven by evidence, fairness and equal application of the law. But the legacy of Floyd’s death is already written. It effected, and continues to effect, substantive and tangible changes that make this a fairer, more just country. An acquittal can’t unravel that, and it doesn’t need to be validated with a conviction.”

                                                         Wall Street Journal’s Opinion [3]

The Wall Street Journal’s Jacob Gershman thinks the prosecution’s use of raw video of the scene on May 25, 2020, leading to the death of George Floyd was very effective as was the testimony of eyewitnesses, several of whom “struggled to contain their nerves and tears as they described watching Mr. Floyd cry out for help until slipping out of consciousness while Mr. Chauvin, then a patrol officer, kept his knee against his neck. Gershman  supports this assessment with the following quotation from Cheryl Bader, a criminal law professor at Fordham University and former federal prosecutor, “We’ve had some very emotional testimony. The judge has allowed witnesses to talk about how they felt, and talk about the raw experience they had and their guilt over this death. That was particularly powerful.”

Indeed, says Gershman, “the bystander testimony has helped prosecutors portray Mr. Chauvin as indifferent to Mr. Floyd’s suffering and aware of the danger of the restraint he was using, legal observers said.” One of those observers, Christopher Slobogin, a criminal law professor at Vanderbilt University, said, “It’s hard to argue that Chauvin was unaware of the risk he was causing when people were telling him about the risk he was causing.”

Defense attorney Erik Nelson attempted “to draw out evidence that the crowd of onlookers surrounding Mr. Chauvin and other officers grew menacing,” but these attempts  “were less successful, according to trial experts.”

Gershman concluded his article by referencing the testimony of Chauvin’s former supervisor, David Pleoger, for his opinion as to when the restraint of Mr. Floyd should have ended, “When Mr. Floyd was no longer offering up any resistance to the officers, they could have ended their restraint.”

New York Times’ Opinion [4]

Frank Bruni, a New York Times columnist, said, “Floyd felt helpless once police officers descended on him. What he’d experienced and observed in his life to that point convinced him that the odds were stacked against him and that he was in danger. “Please don’t shoot me,” he begged when they ordered him out of his car. The fear in his voice — heard on video played in the courtroom — was real.”

Witnesses to this horror also “felt helpless as Derek Chauvin, the former officer now on trial, knelt on Floyd’s neck for minute after unconscionable minute. Chauvin was in uniform. He was the law. Can you actually call the police on the police? It’s like some rhetorical riddle, signaling a world out of whack. Three witnesses actually did call the police on the police, but it was too late.”

Moreover, Bruni’s  listening “to witnesses’ testimony, which was often punctuated with tears, I got the sense that some of them felt helpless not only to stop what was being done to George Floyd but also to affect the larger forces that conspired in his death and trap so many Black Americans like him in a place of great vulnerability and pain.” Indeed, these eyewitnesses are “not so much haunted as tormented by their memories of Floyd’s last minutes. [Charles] McMillian possibly articulated one of the reason with the words he squeezed out through sobs, ‘Oh my God. I couldn’t help but feel helpless.’”

Another witness, George Floyd’s girlfriend, Courtney Ross, “reminded anyone paying close attention . . .that Floyd . . . was also a man: loving, loved, strong, weak, with virtues, with vices.”

As a result, “Chauvin’s inhumanity is indisputable, and the depth of the mark that it left on the people who intersected with it has been heartbreaking to behold. What happened near the corner of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue on May 25, 2020, was a chilling lesson in power and powerlessness. It both validated and stoked their fears.”

Conclusion

The bystanders who testified accurately described what was happening. Chauvin was continuing to apply knee pressure to Mr. Floyd’s neck when he obviously knew or should have known that Floyd was in great, ever increasing distress.

The notion that Chauvin and the other three officers were frightened by the unarmed group of young and old, White and Black bystanders is laughable.

Eugene Robinson, I believe, was correct when he observed that Chauvin’s face during this encounter  shows his sense of “arrogance and superiority” and his silently saying that a “large” Black man like Mr. Floyd was not entitled to respect, but instead was someone who had to be controlled, subdued and forced to submit.

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[1] See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Derek Chauvin Trial: Week One (Mar. 15, 2021); Derek Chauvin Trial: Week Two (Mar. 21, 2021);Derek Chauvin Trial: Week Three (Mar. 24, 2021); Derek Chauvin Trial: Week Four (April  2, 2021); Derek Chauvin Trial: Important Commendations and Thank You’s ((Mar. 25, 2021); Derek Chauvin Trial: Its National and International Importance (Mar. 28, 2021). See also List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Killing of George Floyd. A subsequent post will list the sources for details of the trial’s fourth week.

[2] Editorial, Opinion: No jury should accept that Derek Chauvin was doing what he was trained to do, Wash. Post (Mar. 29, 2021); Editorial, Opinion: It is painfully clear that George Floyd wasn’t the only victim in his killing, Wash. Post (April 1, 2021); Robinson, Black Americans got Derek Chauvin’s message loud and clear, Wash. Post (April 1, 2021); Balko, Opinion: Don’t read too much into the outcome of Derek Chauvin’s trial,  Wash Post (April 1, 2021).

[3] Gershman, In Chauvin Trial’s fourth Week, Prosecutors Lean on Raw Video, Emotional Testimony, W.S.J. (April 2, 2021).

[4] Bruni, Listening to Those Who Saw George Floyd Die, N,Y, Times (April 3, 2021).

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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