Sunday, April 4, 2021

In Derek Chauvin's Trial, Lessons for All to See

            Two of the three major cable news channels have performed a valuable public service by providing live, daily coverage of the murder trial of former Minneapolis police office Derek Chauvin for the death of George Floyd. The five days of testimony that began on Monday [March 29] showed, painfully and wrenchingly, the degree of Chauvin’s malice and recklessness in pinning Floyd’s neck to the ground until after an agonizing nine minutes Floyd lay lifeless, with no pulse found by on-scene paramedics.

            By the time the trial began, ten months after Floyd’s death, the people of Minneapolis and all Americans had seen excerpts of the bystander’s video from that day, with Chauvin’s three colleagues standing by mute and the protesting onlookers pleading with Chauvin to let up. But the airing of the full nine-minute video from Chauvin’s body camera is, as the lawyers might say, the best evidence of what happened that day—not just for the multiracial jury, but for all Americans to judge as well.

            In an odd bit of journalistic rivalry, Tucker Carlson used his Fox News commentary one night last week to complain that the other news channels, CNN and MSNBC, were treating the trial as though it were the Super Bowl—seemingly to gain audience share and, in Carlson’s view, knowingly to further divide public opinion on the “Black Lives Matter” movement and the need to reform police policies and practices.

            Carlson appeared to be bragging that Fox was staying away from coverage of the trial, perhaps the first time in journalistic history that a news organization has bragged about failing to cover one of the most important events of the day. But Carlson may understand that the public viewing of the trial supports the central thesis of the Black Lives Matter movement on the need to redress racist stereotypes held by too many white police officers and the need to adopt and enforce strict policies on the use of force.

            This mini-debate on coverage of the trial brought to mind, for me, Chief Justice Warren Burger’s explanation of the importance of public criminal trials in an important decision four decades ago. Writing the main opinion in Richmond Newspapers v. Virginia  (1980), Burger reinforced the tradition of open criminal trials by citing as benefits “the significant community therapeutic value of public trials” and a public trial’s role in “providing an outlet for community concern, hostility, and emotion.”

            The people of Minneapolis need that outlet and so do the millions of Americans who sympathize with the Black Lives Matter movement, whether or not the Fox News opinion-mongers do. With the jury’s verdict necessarily uncertain, coverage of the trial may help Americans accept the eventual outcome of the trial as a legal judgment based on the evidence and the law rather than a political statement one way or the other.

            Viewers who stayed with the trial as the week continued had the opportunity to hear for themselves testimony from Chauvin’s superiors that his conduct was, whether or not criminal, out of line with best police practices. Testifying on Friday [April 2], Lt. Richard Zimmerman, the longest serving officer on the Minneapolis police department, testified bluntly for the prosecution that Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck was “totally unnecessary.”

“Pulling him down to the ground facedown and putting your knee on a neck for that amount of time, it’s just uncalled for,” Zimmerman testified, after viewing the video in the courtroom. The veteran officer also answered any fear that Chauvin might have had of Floyd.  “Once a person is handcuffed,” Zimmerman went on to say, “the threat level goes down all  the way. They’re cuffed: how can they really hurt you?”

            Chauvin had been the subject of twenty-two complaints – eight of them involving use of force against arrestees -- in his nineteen-year career before he was fired within days after Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020. Only one of the complaints resulted in discipline: city records quoted in news coverage show that only a small fraction of adjudicated complaints against Minneapolis officers over the past decade resulted in discipline.

The prosecution wanted to introduce evidence of eight of those incidents, but Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill allowed only two of them. Whether or not the incidents were admissible in a criminal trial, Chauvin’s history raises the question of whether the department should have kept him on the force or, in any event, allowed him to assume a supervisory role over younger officers – like the three officers who deferred to Chauvin’s seniority as they watched him continue to kneel on Floyd’s neck even as Floyd pleaded, “I can’t breathe.”

            Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter, The other three ex-officers  at the scene – J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas K. Lane, and Tou Thao – face criminal charges themselves and are scheduled to stand trial on aiding-and-abetting charges beginning on Aug. 23. Cahill ordered a separate trial for the trial, over the objection of State Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office is prosecuting the cases. Cahill voiced concern that a joint trial could be a superspreading coronavirus event, while Ellison contended that a second trial would be retraumatizing for the witnesses in the two cases.

            By week’s end, the trial was seen as ahead of schedule, with a second week of testimony set to begin on Monday [April 5]. Whatever the eventual verdict may be, police administrators around the country must take the lessons from Chauvin’s trial needed to prevent unnecessary deaths like Floyd’s in the future.


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