I watched almost all of the trial of former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin. I thought he got a fair trial — or at least as fair as could be had with an unsequestered jury listening to the evidence among a cacophony of civil unrest throughout the metro area. The unrest tarnished the result, but hardly changed it because the evidence was so compelling.
Watching the many videos from all different angles changed my view as to what happened. George Floyd lost consciousness a little more than halfway through the 9 minutes and 29 seconds that Officer Chauvin had his knee on his neck and upper back. We still do not know why attempts to revive Floyd were not begun as soon as he lost consciousness. Chauvin invoked his 5th Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, as is his right, but keeping the pressure on until the moment that the EMTs help lift Floyd’s body onto the gurney was inexcusable.
I do not here mean to make excuses for Chauvin. He did what he did. All of us, including the jury, saw it in real time, and he was found guilty. But had he become calloused and uncaring about George Floyd’s distress because he has seen so many drug overdoses in Minneapolis over the years? In 2020, the year George Floyd died, the number of opioid-related deaths in Minnesota was up 72% over the year before, and 67% higher in Hennepin County. On March 12, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced that fentanyl has been flowing into this nation at a record volume since Oct. 1, 2020. The prosecution’s expert witnesses said Floyd had built up a tolerance to fentanyl, but the autopsy revealed that the amount in his system was three times the amount that has killed others. Regardless, we have to wonder what Chauvin was thinking when he did nothing while knowing Floyd was high on something and then lost consciousness. Perhaps he will tell us at his sentencing hearing.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Justice Department is undertaking a review of the policing practices in Minneapolis. It is needed and may help if done objectively and not to carry forth some political agenda.
The bigger question is where do we as a society go from here? What I hear on the street is that many law enforcement officials are considering leaving the profession.
Most of us have seen video of the shooting death of Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center. The circumstances are entirely different than the murder of George Floyd. However, the officer who shot Wright will pay a heavy price for her split-second mistake. Who would go into such a profession knowing that one error in judgment could lead to prison time?
Perhaps most concerning of all in this entire episode has been the rise of mob violence. This is not about liberals vs. conservatives or Blacks vs. Whites. We have seen everyone from Antifa to the Proud Boys take the law into their own hands, apparently believing that few consequences will result. We have seen the instigator of the destruction of a public statue penalized only with community service for doing $154,000 in damages. We have seen an attack on the U.S. Capitol and Congress sandwiched here between riots in Minneapolis and Brooklyn Center.
Instead of political leaders calling for calm, letting the process work and standing up for the rule of law and our judicial system, we have seen everyone from Gov. Tim Walz to Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey to even California Rep. Maxine Waters and President Biden calling it “murder” before all the facts were in, justifying rage or demanding the “right” verdict. We saw a well-publicized pay-out of $27 million to the family of George Floyd simultaneous with jury selection.
Given this catering to the mob, the wounding of two National Guardsmen in a drive-by shooting and the expulsion of the National Guard from a union hall should come as no surprise. Intimidation is the goal. But here’s the thing: If all these actions outside the courtroom were designed to tip the scales of justice, and one agrees that such tactics were effective, then how can one claim that this was a fair trial? One can’t have it both ways.
Judge Peter Cahill did the best he could under the circumstances. Because of the intense media coverage, moving the trial was not an option. Given the politicization of the entire sequence of events, don’t expect an appellate court to declare a mistrial. In this state, judges face the electorate, too.
In case no one noticed, the only time that race came up as a topic in the courtroom was when Cahill was giving instructions to the jury. He told the jurors to set aside any racial bias they may hold. They had no reason to bring racism into play. The evidence was convincing enough.
In the end, Derek Chauvin’s life is effectively over because he didn’t care if George Floyd’s life ended under his knee. However, we also have a judicial system under siege, a political branch catering to the mob and the torch of liberty in more danger of being snuffed out than at any time in the last 156 years.
Tom West, now retired, is the former general manager of this paper. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.