The announcement that the City of Minneapolis had agreed to settle the wrongful death suit brought by the family of George Floyd for $27 million stirred a bit of controversy, but it brought little relief to a community that overwhelmingly lacks faith in the justice system.
The announcement was made last Friday at the same time, and less than a mile away at the Hennepin County Government Center, attorneys for the defense and the prosecution were questioning potential jurors for the Derek Chauvin murder trial.
“This lynching can’t be wiped away by money. This money won’t replace his life,” said Reverend Brian Herron, pastor of Zion Baptist Church. “If justice is going to be served, then there must be convictions of every officer involved in George Floyd’s death. You can’t buy the conscience of the people nor absolve your own conscience by throwing money around.”
The somewhat celebratory tone of the press conference made it appear that both parties, the City and the family’s lawyers, had reached an amicable agreement. The family’s lead attorney Ben Crump used the word “grateful” several times. One of the attorneys made reference to policy adjustments involving police, which were revealed to the public for the first time.
The settlement is reportedly the largest pre-trial payout in U.S. history involving wrongful death at the hands of police. In Minnesota, it exceeds the $20 million settlement awarded to the family of Justine Damond Ruszczyk, who was killed in July 2017 by former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor. Noor was found guilty of third-degree murder in that case.
“Regardless of the outcome of the criminal trial, this settlement is a clear acknowledgment by the City of Minneapolis that Officer Chauvin’s actions directly contributed to Floyd’s death. While the award will help the Floyd family move forward with their lives, there is no amount of money that will bring Floyd back,” wrote Justice for Justine Coalition in a release. The organization of neighbors and activists came together to press for justice for Damond Ruszczyk after her death.
“We must also remember that this settlement does nothing to alleviate the suffering of families of other police violence victims who never received a commensurate award. Hundreds of Minnesotans have died at the hands of the police since 2000, many of whom under circumstances equally as egregious as those suffered by George Floyd.
But the legal system seized every opportunity it could to side with police and deny the families of these victims any measure of compensation for the wrongs they suffered. More must be done to prevent future similar tragedies, and it is the responsibility of the City of Minneapolis, not the Floyd family, to use its resources to bring about those reforms,” the release states.
Many in the community share the coalition’s sentiments.
“At the end of the day, George Floyd is still dead,” said 63-year-old Julian Johnson, a longtime Twin Cities resident who recalled attending Floyd’s funeral in Houston. “He looked majestic in that casket, but the man is no longer with us. I think we all want to see justice done. How can you see that video and not see murder?”
There were lots of questions raised by the timing of the settlement. Defense attorney Eric Nelson asked for a continuance and a change of venue on the grounds that the news of the settlement has contaminated the jury pool. However, jury selection continued as the judge said he would take the request under advisement.
In the wrongful death suit of Damond Ruszczyk, the City of Minneapolis settled with the family after Noor had been convicted.
“If you get a conviction in the criminal case, that is a great one-up for the civil case,” said criminal defense attorney Mike Padden, who represented the family of Terrence Franklin. Franklin was killed by Minneapolis police in 2013. The city settled that case for $795,000 in February 2020.
”I think an argument can be made that settling the case now may have been a good strategy,” said Padden, “because if he [Chauvin] would have been convicted, the Floyd family attorneys could have increased their demand.”
Padden said that under Minnesota law, juries can award punitive damages, which are open-ended. That is separate from the damages the family would be entitled to for the death of their loved one under the wrongful death law.
If this had gone to civil trial, Padden said, “There would be an element of punitive damages. This is a penalty that the jury could assess against Chauvin personally, or assess it against the City for not disciplining the cops and letting the Police Federation run amuck. That could have been a huge number.”
Can the State secure justice?
As the public continues to watch the jury selection for the trial, some are paying close attention to the interview process. Local attorney Jordan Kushner pointed out that the attorneys for the prosecution—the State—are corporate lawyers working the case pro bono. He took note of prosecuting attorney Steve Schleicher questioning potential witnesses about equity and inequality. Kushner said, “He wasn’t so concerned about equity when he was a federal prosecutor.”
Kushner also pointed out that while the defense attorney Eric Nelson, in his questioning of potential jurors, asks often if, after a review of the evidence and the strict rules of the law, they could vote to find his client not guilty. “It is unusual,” he said, “that the State has not in turn asked if jurors could bring themselves to convict a cop.”
The lawyers’ insistence in the case to the potential jurors that all of the evidence has not been presented to determine Chauvin’s guilt or innocence is apparently having an effect on young minds. A teenager who months ago, after viewing the video of Chauvin with his knee on Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes, would have likely concluded that Chauvin killed Floyd, now thinks he needs to see “all of the evidence” before he can make an informed judgment.
“We have to get justice in this case. It’s a must. We have to get a conviction,” said Philonise Floyd, George Floyd’s brother, when asked about the case last week. “If the roles were reversed and George Floyd had done to Derek Chauvin what he did to George, nobody would call this a tough case,” Crump said. “When you put race into the mix” it changes to “we don’t know if this is so clear cut,” especially on the part of the justice system.