Derek Chauvin's conviction is progress, but it 'will do nothing to change' urban policing on its own

Tami Abdollah
USA TODAY

MINNEAPOLIS – The guilty verdict returned by jurors Tuesday in the murder trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin was a reason for joy among many, especially in the Black community. But it was also a vivid demonstration of what the criminal justice system could be if prosecutors went after all "bad cops" with the same gusto, legal observers said.

During the 42-day trial, jurors heard from 45 witnesses and listened to hours of technical testimony about whether Chauvin, who pinned George Floyd to the ground under his knee for 9 1/2 minutes, actually caused his death. In the end, jurors unanimously agreed, he did.

They convicted Chauvin on all three counts: second- and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

But that does little to assuage longstanding problems with how people of color are treated by the criminal justice system. Nor does it necessarily impact how other cases like the police shooting of Daunte Wright in nearby Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, will be handled. That's because of the entrenched culture of policing and prosecuting, experts said, but also because of the unique aspects of this case.

"What the verdict (says) is when you have such an egregious act that shocks the conscience of the usually oblivious and unconcerned white mainstream, then prosecutors and policing culture will come to the bar of justice and do the right thing –which is testify against this officer," said Connie Rice, a prominent civil rights attorney and former member of President Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

"But," she said, "a victory in this trial is a confirmation of the massive failure of our broad system."

Jurors concluded that Chauvin had intentionally committed third-degree assault on Floyd when he pinned him to the ground, handcuffed, and pressed his knee into his neck. And, they concluded, the assault resulted in Floyd's murder, even though Chauvin may not have meant to kill him.

Chauvin faces a recommended 12 1/2 years in prison under sentencing guidelines for first-time offenders, but the prosecution wants a longer sentence — up to 30 years — due to aggravating factors. The decision is up to Cahill. 

"I would not call today's verdict, justice ... because justice implies true restoration," said Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office handled the prosecution. "But it is accountability, which is the first step towards justice. And now the cause of justice is in your hands. And when I say your hands, I mean the hands of the people of the United States."

Derek Chauvin is lead out of the courtroom in handcuffs after a guilty verdict is read during the trial of Derek Chauvin of the death of George Floyd at the courthouse in Minneapolis on April 20, 2021.

The sequestered jury provided their verdict a day after closing statements, and hours after President Joe Biden said he believed the evidence overwhelmingly supported a guilty verdict in the trial.

It's rare for a police officer to be convicted for killing someone on duty, "but this whole thing is rare," said retired Redlands, California, police Chief Jim Bueermann, the former president of the National Police Foundation, a nonprofit think tank. He said he wasn't sure there would be any impact on policing in the U.S., especially because "most cops believe American policing is under attack."

"Obviously, there are lots of police fatal uses of force," Bueermann said, noting that the number hovers around 1,000 people per year. "But taken in its totality, this case is unprecedented in many ways."

Those unique factors include the manner in which Chauvin killed Floyd, that he did it for so long even as bystanders recorded video and begged him to stop, and that he didn't relent even after at least one other officer suggested they reposition Floyd.

The circumstances of Floyd's death meant lead defense attorney Eric Nelson was not able to utilize the usual "split-second" argument used when officers shoot someone.

Attorney John Burris represented Rodney King, a Black man who was beaten by white Los Angeles police officers 30 years ago while a neighbor recorded it. The four officers were acquitted of criminal charges; within hours, five days of rioting in Los Angeles began.

Burris said it was easier for jurors to convict Chauvin if they saw him as "a cold, ruthless person – unkind, unfeeling." Chauvin, wearing a surgical mask, showed little emotion during the case and when the jury read its verdict.

"This trial is unique," Rice said, in part because it was a "lynching" in which Chauvin showed bystanders he could do what he wanted, for 9 1/2 minutes, and they were powerless to stop it.

The verdict "will do nothing to change the physics of urban policing," Rice said. She said the circumstances of this case probably won't be repeated, "where you see the code of silence broken, you see the blue wall of impunity pierced. You see prosecutors going after a police officer at a level that they go after criminals daily."

In his closing argument, prosecutor Steve Schleicher said this was a "pro-police" case.

“The defendant is not on trial for being a police officer, he’s not on trial for who he was, he’s on trial for what he did,” he told jurors.

Evidence against Chauvin was overwhelming

Legal experts who watched the trial praised prosecutors' performance and said they presented overwhelming evidence against Chauvin.

"The prosecution presented an incredibly strong case," said Ted Sampsell-Jones, a professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in neighboring St. Paul. "The defense lawyers were totally overmatched."

Legal observers said the totality of the prosecution's testimony was insurmountable as Minneapolis police officials and policing experts denounced Chauvin's actions as excessive, unreasonable and out of policy.

Several key witnesses were particularly powerful, said Mary Moriarty, the former chief public defender for Hennepin County: bystanders like Darnella Frazier, who recorded the viral video; Dr. Martin Tobin, a medical expert; and Minneapolis police Chief Medaria Arradondo, who told jurors Chauvin violated the department’s policies and his actions did not reflect “our ethics or our values.”

In this image from video, Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo testifies Monday, April 5, 2021, in the trial of former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis.

In his closing statement, prosecutor Steve Schleicher described bystanders as "random members of the community, all converged by fate at one single moment in time to witness" what happened –– and then to bring their testimony to jurors.

"We got to meet them all as human beings," Moriarty said, noting that Frazier was a minor at the time.

When Nelson asked Frazier if recording the video changed her life, that allowed prosecutors to ask her to elaborate. 

"When I look at George Floyd, I look at my dad, I look at my brothers, I look at my cousins, my uncles," Frazier said, her voice cracking. She said she stayed up late some nights "apologizing and apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life."

But, she said, "it’s not what I should have done. It’s what he (Chauvin) should have done."

Crucial moments from former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin's trial in the death of George Floyd.

Moriarty said Tobin, a pulmonologist who cares for critical care patients, "was one of the best expert witnesses I have ever seen." He "gave all of us a clinic in plain English" on the pulmonary system, counted Floyd's breaths on a video, had jurors feeling their own necks as he described the human airway, and showed viewers the moment in the video when Floyd went unconscious and suffered an anoxic seizure.

"He had a bedside manner in court," said Joe Daly, an emeritus professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. "He could explain everything, and he had this very pleasing Irish lilt. He had a very pleasing personality and the way he testified, you trusted him. About halfway through his testimony I thought, I'd love this guy to be my doctor."

Moriarty said she didn't think Nelson had enough of a grasp of the medical knowledge to cross-examine the state's experts. Tobin would have been hard for most attorneys to cross-examine, she said.

"I understand the strategy is wanting to make it look like it’s you and Chauvin against the power of the state and all their experts," Moriarty said. "I don’t know if that was particularly effective."

For all of the explanations provided by the defense for Floyd's death, Nelson never adequately explained why Chauvin held Floyd down for 2 1/2 minutes even after he had no pulse. The only explanation provided was that Chauvin was maintaining his position until an ambulance arrived in the face of an angry crowd that made the area unsafe.

The fact that Chauvin continued to press on Floyd's neck even after he had no pulse "is hard to get away from, and I don't think it was dealt with," Daly said. "Nobody looked too threatening, if you asked me." 

Defense lacked a narrative

Sarah Davis, executive director of the Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis, said the defense's attempts to construct a narrative of the events felt disingenuous, and Nelson failed to gain the trust of jurors through his arguments. 

"If you watched the closings, you heard the state call out the defense for what they called 'nonsense,' really calling out those disingenuous arguments," she said. A conviction on all three charges means the state succeeded, but also "the defense just really was not able to sell their version and their narrative."

Nelson argued that Floyd's drug use and his underlying health issues caused his death while he struggled with police. But he never called what happened to Floyd "tragic" until his closing argument.

"He waited until two hours into his closing to even utter the word 'tragic,'" Davis said. "The thing is, he didn’t have a coherent narrative and I think you saw that right at the beginning of his closing. If you have a coherent narrative, you tell that story right at the beginning of closing when you have the jury’s attention."

The state did exactly that, starting its closing with a short biography of Floyd and who he was as a person. Prosecutors pushed a consistent theory throughout the case, Davis said.

The state won key concessions from the defense's two expert witnesses and undermined their credibility during their cross examinations. Dr. David Fowler testified that Floyd likely died of a "sudden cardiac arrhythmia" due to his hypertensive heart disease, plus the methamphetamine and fentanyl in his system, while he was being restrained and subdued by police.

Because of the many factors, Fowler concluded the manner of Floyd's death was "undetermined" rather than a homicide.

"Undetermined –– that’s not a strong opinion," Moriarty said. It was especially problematic for the defense when compared to the state's strong expert witnesses.

"You would rather have your own narrative about what happened," Moriarty said, "rather than say you can’t prove it, (so) it's reasonable doubt. That’s not a very strong position to find yourself in."

Fowler conceded that Chauvin and the other officers should have immediately offered CPR and chest compressions to Floyd when he was clearly in medical distress and when they learned he had no pulse.

Moriarty said she felt the jury was "offended" by some of the characterizations Nelson reverted to during the trial, including his attempt to goad Donald Williams, the mixed martial arts fighter who told Chauvin he was putting Floyd in a "blood choke," into "coming across as some angry Black man." Nelson characterized the crowd, which included a 9-year-old girl, other minors and an off-duty firefighter, as an angry mob.

"They were all people who were trying to help" and followed police directions, Moriarty said. She noted that a use-of-force expert for the defense acknowledged that simply stopping the restraint would have de-escalated the situation.

"You cannot ignore the racism and the racist ideas inherent in the defense's presentation of its case," Davis said.

Chauvin was not humanized

Chauvin chose not to testify, opting to exercise his the Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself. He wore a surgical mask throughout the trial, sitting ramrod straight in his chair, and taking notes on a yellow notepad.

He rarely looked at the jury or made any expressions of emotion.

"All we have is that look of him on his face on George Floyd's back and neck, and we never got to see anything other than that," Davis said. "He didn’t react in court to any of the really emotional testimony from what we could tell."

Minneapolis on high alert

The jurors were ordered to stay away from news on the trial, and ultimately all news in general, by Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill. 

Still, it's impossible to believe the jurors could not "taste the tension" in Minneapolis, said A.L. Brown, a criminal defense and civil rights attorney in neighboring St. Paul. The courthouse was surrounded by fencing and razor wire, and National Guard soldiers were stationed outside.

"They know the dangers of a not-guilty verdict," Brown said. "It may not drive the outcome, but they’re surely aware of it."

Brown said pretending the criminal justice system is fair doesn't reflect the reality he sees in court.

“People will draw from these verdicts what they need,” he said. “There’s a portion of our population that will say, ‘See? What’s all the whining about? He had a trial. Was found guilty. America works. Stop burning things. Follow the law. Go back to your homes.’”

But a guilty verdict across the board — “that’s the closest to happiness this case can get you.”

Follow Tami Abdollah, a national correspondent for criminal justice, on Twitter at @latams.