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The Memo: Chauvin verdict delivers rare moment of justice

The Memo: Chauvin verdict delivers rare moment of justice
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It was clear to any fair-minded person that Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd on a Minneapolis street last May.

For once, a jury agreed. 

Their verdict, a landmark decision, could see Chauvin imprisoned for up to 40 years.

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Chauvin, a police officer at the time of his crimes, was found guilty on all three charges — second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. The jury had deliberated for about 11 hours in all.

Their decision is not a panacea, as many people from grassroots activists to former President Obama emphasized. There is abundant evidence of inequities that riddle the justice system. They will not be erased by the verdict.

Individual states, as well as the federal government, are grappling with how to address those problems — and are doing so in the face of opposition from police unions, as well as some conservative voters and politicians.

But the Chauvin verdict showed, at least, that justice can be done in some cases. There can, after all, be police conduct egregious enough for prosecutors to prosecute and juries to convict — even when the cop is white and the victim is Black.

Time will tell if the Chauvin verdict is the beginning of a new era. But it seems, at least, to bookend an older one, where even the starkest evidence was often not enough to secure guilty verdicts.

That era began with the savage beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers in 1991.

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Not one of the four police officers who assailed King was convicted — a verdict seen as so transparently outrageous it sparked rioting that endured for almost a week.

In more recent years, other high-profile cases of people of color losing their lives at the hands of police have slid toward anticlimactic conclusions.

Eric Garner died in circumstances chillingly similar to those of Floyd in New York in 2014. A grand jury declined to indict the officer involved.

Tamir Rice was 12 years old when he was killed in Cleveland, also in 2014, by an officer who opened fire almost immediately upon arriving at the scene. No charges were brought.

Philando Castile was killed by a police officer during a traffic stop in Minnesota in 2016. The officer was acquitted of all charges. 

Fresh scars were being inflicted even while the Chauvin trial was going on. 

According to a New York Times analysis, at least 64 people died nationwide at the hands of law enforcement officers between testimony beginning in the Chauvin trial on March 29 and last Saturday. That works out as a rate of roughly three deaths per day.

The Floyd case was an exception in many ways, of course — none more graphic or appalling than Chauvin’s kneeling against Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes while the prone man begged for his life. 

The duration of Chauvin’s deadly assault on Floyd deprived the defense of one of the most common lines of argument used to try to extricate police officers from charges — the idea that an officer under pressure had some kind of momentary but understandable lapse that did not merit criminal penalty.

There was no plausible way to argue that in the case of Chauvin, whose blank expression as he ended Floyd’s life has become etched in the national consciousness.

The national and international protests that followed were notably diverse. And public polling holds out some hope of a permanent change in attitudes — a shift catalyzed not just by the murder of Floyd but by the accumulating video evidence of police misdeeds.

A Monmouth University Poll survey released April 15 found a huge majority, 70 percent, of adults supporting “greater efforts to achieve racial equity that go beyond current laws.” Sixty-six percent of whites were among those backing that broad principle.

The same poll showed a much narrower margin — but still a plurality — asserting that police were more likely to use excessive force against a Black suspect than a white suspect. Forty-nine percent of all adults believed this to be the case, whereas 41 percent said it was more likely that the two scenarios would unfold in a similar way.

There are signs of movement legislatively too. A majority of states, around 30, have passed at least one law intended to check police power or provide some degree of oversight, whether that is requiring the wearing of body cams or paring back the legal immunity that police officers have traditionally enjoyed.

Obama, in a statement, noted “true justice is about much more than a single verdict in a single trial.”

President BidenJoe Biden28 Senate Democrats sign statement urging Israel-Hamas ceasefire Franklin Graham says Trump comeback would 'be a very tough thing to do' Schools face new pressures to reopen for in-person learning MORE and Vice President Harris were due to speak Tuesday night on the verdict. 

Biden had earlier in the day said that the case against Chauvin was “overwhelming.”  Harris, in an interview with CNN, had said that even a guilty verdict “will not heal the pain that existed for generations” regarding police brutality and racism.

In the moments after the verdict, Biden and Harris spoke with George Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd. 

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Philonise Floyd had previously told a reporter at the court, “I was just praying they would find him guilty. As an African American, we usually never get justice.”

On social media, many users recalled the words of George Floyd’s six-year-old daughter, Gianna, amid the protests around his death: “Daddy changed the world.”

How much the world has changed will become clear over time. But Tuesday’s verdict at least saw America’s moral arc bend belatedly toward justice.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.