The Memo: Tense nation readies for Chauvin verdict
The nation is bracing for a verdict in Derek Chauvin’s trial over the death of George Floyd, as racial tensions are roiled by two other shocking police killings.
Closing arguments in Chauvin’s trial are expected Monday, after which the jury will begin its deliberations. Chauvin, now 45, was a Minneapolis police officer when he was filmed kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes during a May arrest. Floyd was declared dead at a nearby hospital.
Floyd’s death, and the shocking video of the events leading up to it, caused national and global outrage. Now there are fears of unrest if Chauvin is acquitted — an outcome that Black Americans, in particular, would see as evidence of a system egregiously biased against them.
The Chauvin verdict is set to play out against the backdrop of the deaths of 20-year-old Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minn., just 11 miles from the site of Floyd’s death; and of Adam Toledo, a 13-year-old, in Chicago.
Wright, a Black man, was shot dead by a white female police officer, Kim Potter, during a traffic stop. Police were trying to arrest Wright, who was the subject of an outstanding warrant, when Potter seemingly fired her pistol in error, believing she was holding a stun gun instead.
Toledo was shot dead in disputed circumstances. Police claim he was armed until a second or two before he was shot, though video footage from a police body camera is inconclusive on this point. At the instant he was shot, Toledo appears to have his hands raised and empty.
Potter has been charged with manslaughter. There has not yet been a decision as to whether the police officer who shot Toledo, Eric Stillman, will face prosecution. Police unions have defended his actions, hanging their case on the issue of whether Toledo was armed.
But the three issues — the deaths of Floyd, Wright and Toledo — have raised the stakes of the Chauvin verdict, at least in the court of public opinion. They have also fueled a febrile atmosphere as the nation grapples with questions over policing, the criminal justice system and long-standing racial inequities.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a Los Angeles-based writer and commentator who has authored several books on the Black experience, said the confluence of the different issues “does three things.”
“It heightens tension that is already there. It really refocuses again on the criminal justice system, and whether the victim and their families can get justice. And it reminds us that the rare times when police officers are tried, they are often acquitted,” Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson, who also hosts a radio show, said he was hearing a lot of concern from Black Americans about whether Chauvin would be convicted, despite the apparent abundance of evidence against him. He cited the infamous precedent of Los Angeles police officers being filmed savagely beating Rodney King in 1991. None of the four officers who were charged in connection with King’s beating was convicted.
“There is an expectation among many African-Americans, given the past history of cops that kill being routinely acquitted. We are very skeptical that he will be convicted. I am getting a lot of that,” Hutchinson said.
Chauvin faces charges of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
The spectrum of charges reflects, in part, the calculation prosecutors must make in terms of the willingness of juries to convict police officers.
The reluctance of most juries to convict on serious charges is well-known. But one of the most difficult things to predict in the current scenario is what the public reaction would look like if Chauvin were convicted of the least serious charge, manslaughter, and acquitted on the murder charges.
A Monmouth University poll released Thursday found that 63 percent of Americans believe that acquittals across the board for Chauvin would be a negative step for race relations. Thirty-seven percent said that if he were found guilty of murder, it would be a positive step.
Police unions, and conservatives more broadly, have warned against high-profile cases being judged on bigger issues outside the courtroom — such as the overall state of race relations — rather than the evidence put forth in the proceedings.
In Chauvin’s case, the defense is trying to climb a steep hill when it comes to plausibility. At its core, his legal team’s case is that Floyd, who was pinned to the ground with Chauvin’s knee on his neck, and who was pleading that he could not breathe, died of causes other than asphyxia.
But the Monmouth poll also showed the degree to which attitudes to the Chauvin trial are polarized. Fifty-six percent of white voters who identify as Democrats or independents said they would view a guilty verdict for Chauvin as a positive outcome for race relations. Only 13 percent of white Republicans saw things the same way.
After the defense rested its case in Chauvin’s trial, NAACP president Derrick Johnson said, “What we’ve all witnessed throughout the trial thus far confirmed what we saw in the video. Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd. As we turn to closing arguments on Monday, the nation waits on justice.”
The Biden administration has backed away from the idea of a national police oversight board. But, on Friday, Attorney General Merrick Garland rescinded restrictions enacted during former President Trump’s administration, which limited the power of the Justice Department to force changes on local police departments.
A generation ago, the acquittal verdicts in the beating of King set off riots that convulsed Los Angeles for almost a week.
Now all eyes are on Minneapolis for evidence of how much — or how little — has changed.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.
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