A pall hangs over Minneapolis this week—and to a lesser extent over Minnesota and the nation—as many hold their collective breath in anticipation of what quickly is becoming one of the trials of this young century.
The anxiety is palpable. It will mark the first time in Minnesota history that a White cop will be tried for the murder of a Black person. Governor Tim Walz has called it “the most important trial in the country.”
“This is America being re-tried. America is on trial,” said St. Paul-based criminal defense attorney A.L. Brown. “We saw the difference in the outcome of the Philando Castile and [Mohammed] Noor trials.
“America has been a defendant that can’t be convicted. It’s guilty of turning a blind eye to the plight of Black America,” said Brown. “It didn’t believe us [Blacks] when we told them that cops were beating the hell out of us. Now we are going to see if they believe us when we show them.”
Protests predominate as trial opens
Protests dotted the Twin Cities landscape over the weekend and Monday morning. “We are not on trial here—the system is on trial. Can it do what it says it’s about and be just?” asked one of the speakers at a protest on Saturday.
At the end of a silent march and protest on Sunday, an interracial group of preachers held a prayer vigil. “Why should I feel discouraged?” the vocalist asked rhetorically as a version of the gospel standard “His Eye is on the Sparrow” blared over speakers in the Hennepin County Government Center. “Why should the shadows come? Why should my heart feel lonely and long for heaven and home?”
The song, which has been a staple in the Black church tradition and during the Freedom Movement in the 1960s, conjured up reminders that Black progress has not advanced as far as many had hoped. Despite some real changes, grave injustices, including police violence against Blacks, remain.
Incidentally, Sunday marked the 56th anniversary of Bloody Sunday when hundreds of marchers demanding the right to vote, led by Dr. Martin Luther King and Selma native Amelia Boynton, were attacked and brutally beaten as they attempted to exercise their democratic right to protest by crossing the Edmund Pettis Bridge.
Saturday about 250 people rallied at the Minnesota governor’s mansion as part of a National Day of Mass Action against police violence. Families who have lost loved ones to police violence called for prosecution of police who kill civilians, reopening all of the cases of police violence, and justice for George Floyd.
Sunday brought on a silent protest through downtown Minneapolis as hundreds marched in silence behind a white casket draped with red roses, symbolizing the body of Floyd. The image conjured up memories of Third World protests in which citizens at the mercy of rogue regimes did what they could to voice opposition to those in power who were trampling over their rights and bodies with impunity, with little or no hope for justice in sight.
Trial of the Century may seem a bit hyperbolic, but how else to describe this moment in U.S. jurisprudence? The last trial of this magnitude was the trial of the cops who assaulted Rodney King. Geronimo Yanez got away with shooting Philando Castile in a rare prosecution of a police officer in Minnesota. But in that case, the public had not seen Yanez kill Castile, though there was Facebook live video of him taking his last breaths. In Floyd’s case, there is a video of Chauvin pressing his knee on Floyd’s neck until he was no longer appeared to be breathing.
Questions predominate. Will the prosecutors have their heart in prosecuting an officer of the state? Will the rules of jurisprudence—which appear to be stacked in the favor of the police—, make a conviction all but impossible? Did the addition of the third-degree murder make it easier for a jury to vote for a compromise that will ensure that the ex-cop does significant time?
Trial begins with delays
“We’re not doing this to interfere, but it is a very important matter,” said Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank to presiding Judge Peter Cahill as he appealed for a delay on the first day of planned jury selection. Frank said he felt the defense wanted to go ahead because it was trying to create an issue that could be appealed later.
Cahill responded, “Everything the court does is a potential appeal issue, so I’m not worried about that.” The prosecution has been trying to delay the trial for months. The Attorney General’s Office initially appealed to have the trial delayed because of concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.
The delays, along with the attempt to add the lesser charge of third-degree murder, raise suspicions that the prosecution is not confident it can make its case. It is more likely that the delays are designed to make it easier for the prosecution to appeal to the courts to have the three other Minneapolis police officers at the scene of Floyd’s death—Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao—be tried along with Chauvin. A delay may serve to ease community tensions.
The reinstatement of the third-degree charge, if indeed the courts allow its reinstatement, will give the prosecution a bit of a cushion, especially if they are unable to prove that Derek Chauvin was guilty of second-degree murder. To be convicted of second-degree murder, the prosecution has to prove that Chauvin “caused the death of a human being without intent to effect the death of any person, while intentionally inflicting or attempting to inflict bodily harm upon the victim.”
This means the prosecution will have to prove that Chauvin intended to cause harm when he kneeled on George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. If convicted of second-degree murder he can be sentenced to up to 40 years in prison, while a third-degree conviction would bring a sentence of up to 25 years.
Sentencing guidelines recommend 12½ years for the murder charge and four for manslaughter for first-time offenders. Without the third-degree charge, a jury could simply convict Chauvin of manslaughter, which has a maximum prison requirement of 10 years.
Challenging jury selection
If the beginning of jury selection on Tuesday is any indication, it is going to be difficult to find jurors who have not already formed an opinion about the case.
The first juror, referred to as juror number one, who said she was from Mexico and had a bit of a heavy accent, said when questioned about what she had seen of the video of Chauvin with his knee on Floyd’s neck, “I feel that’s not fair because we are human, you know.”
Juror number three was adamant that she had made up her mind that Chauvin was guilty. “No matter what kind of dress you put this in, it happened,” she said on the stand.
“Too much is just cold hard fact that cannot be ignored. I definitely hope for a specific outcome and I don’t know that will change.”
Although she made it crystal clear her mind was made up, defense attorney Eric Nelson questioned her anyway. His questions seemed to be aimed at propagandizing the Court TV audience, especially when he asked, “Would you at least acknowledge that you have not heard everything?”
She again reiterated that she would like to hear new “novel” information, but she did not change her stance. She was dismissed by the judge.
Juror number four said he would be willing to look at all the evidence, noting that if what Chauvin did was proper police training he would be open to seeing things from the defense’s perspective. But, he added, “Right is right and wrong is wrong.”
The defense dismissed him using a peremptory challenge. The state raised a Batson challenge because juror number one and juror number four were Latino. Nelson, in his defense, said he felt the potential juror was “insincere.” Judge Cahill dismissed the challenge.