Observations from a long, consequential trial

legal insights

I was asked by a journalist what the Derek Chauvin verdict means to this city.  After pausing briefly, I said, “Everything.”  Many, especially in the Black community, have never seen accountability in the criminal legal system for White officers who kill Black men. And many still believe there will be no accountability in the Chauvin case. 

I think Chauvin will be convicted.  I also believe a guilty verdict would only be the beginning because Chauvin is not simply a “bad apple.” In my 31 years of experience as a public defender watching bodycam and listening to my clients, I know that his behavior is the product of a poisonous culture.    

During the trial, a prosecutor asked Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo to explain the department’s goal of “serving with compassion.” He responded, “It means to understand and authentically accept that we see our neighbors as ourselves.” He added, “We value one another. We see our community as necessary for our existence.” Of Chauvin’s actions toward George Floyd, Arradondo testified, “It’s not part of our training and it’s certainly not part of our ethics or values.”

“Culture change will take years and require the participation of policymakers, the courts, prosecutors, and the community. “

One Saturday, about five years ago, I attended a training on implicit bias with 20 officers from the Minneapolis Police Department.  Right before we started, a lieutenant at my table made a profanity-laden announcement that this training was a waste of his time. When a facilitator asked what their goals were for the next year, the lieutenant stood up and said proudly, “I want to maintain the warrior mentality because that’s why I became a cop.”  That was the moment I realized how difficult it would be to change the culture of the MPD. 

This is why I hold two truths: Chief Arradondo’s testimony reflects his authentic values, and the culture change he is seeking. And, culture change will take years and require the participation of policymakers, the courts, prosecutors, and the community. A Chauvin conviction would only be one step along that journey toward true reform. 

The Chauvin trial was unique in several ways. Early on, the governor brought in the Attorney General, Keith Ellison, to replace the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office. The attorney general assembled a legal team the size of a professional basketball team to prosecute a case with complicated medical testimony, numerous use of force experts, and many community members traumatized after being forced to witness the horrific death of George Floyd. This was also the first criminal case in Minnesota to be broadcast live, not only to Minnesotans but across the world. 

I was told by journalists, who have covered the trials of police officers across the country, that this was the most comprehensive prosecution effort they have seen. The state called specialists from every relevant medical field, including a pulmonologist (Dr. Martin Tobin) who was the best expert I have ever seen testify in a trial. 

The defense was only able to find one medical expert, a medical examiner, who was cross-examined quite effectively by the prosecution.  During the closing argument, the defense argued that reasonable doubt existed because George Floyd could have died from any number of causes.  Relying on reasonable doubt alone, without a coherent defense narrative, is not a position in which defense lawyers should find themselves.   

“From a strategic perspective, the state was more likely to get a conviction by not taking on the additional burden of condemning the entire Minneapolis Police Department…”

To establish the cause of death, the state must prove only that Chauvin’s actions were a substantial cause of Floyd’s death, not the only cause.  And even if some other factor did contribute to his death, Chauvin is liable under the law if his actions caused a chain reaction (heart couldn’t handle restraint) resulting in Floyd’s death.  By calling heart and lung doctors, a toxicologist, two emergency room physicians, and two medical examiners, the state left little doubt, much less reasonable doubt, that Chauvin’s actions killed George Floyd. 

The other issue the state needed to address was use of force.  As we heard many times throughout the trial, were Chauvin’s actions those of an objectively reasonable police officer?  Although the defense requested the “20/20 hindsight” instruction, the judge did not give it to the jury. This is significant because the instruction tells the jury to judge the use of force from the “perspective of a reasonable officer at the moment he is at the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.” 

This language is not required by law, but it was given by the judge in the Yanez case, which may have played a role in the acquittal of the man who killed Philando Castile.  That instruction makes it more difficult for the jury to second guess a police officer, but the Chauvin jury did not hear it. 

During the closing argument, the state argued that this was a prosecution of Chauvin, not the police. Some in the community were angered by this approach because, by adopting this theory, the state essentially argued that Chauvin was a “bad apple.”  I’ve written above that I don’t believe in the “bad apple” theory, but from a strategic perspective, the state was more likely to get a conviction by not taking on the additional burden of condemning the entire Minneapolis Police Department, or law enforcement in general.  

From a technical and substantive perspective, this was not a well-tried case.  The defense had no single theory and violated most of the rules we are taught about cross-examination.  Most of all, the defense made arguments and statements that were offensive. 

During closing, the defense talked about Mr. Charles McMillian, the 61-year-old man who talked to Floyd as Chauvin was squeezing the life out of him.  Mr. McMillian, the defense said, had a third-grade education. This was, by the way, after the state told the jury that they might have noticed Mr. McMillian’s shoes as he walked by because they may have seen their reflection. This was such an important day in his life, that he polished his shoes to perfection.  But the defense chose to talk about his entirely irrelevant level of formal education.

This was right up there with trying to goad Donald Williams into becoming an “angry Black man” in court, describing the compassionate people who tried their very best to help Floyd as some kind of angry mob that “distracted Chauvin from caring for George Floyd,” and the descriptions of Floyd as big and high on drugs (another big, scary Black man who might suddenly exhibit superhuman strength.)  The defense made this argument even after we all saw the Cup Food’s video of Floyd laughing, dancing, hugging, and enjoying what would be the last minutes of his life.      

As angry as I’ve been by the defense’s appeal to racist tropes, maybe this trial can be used as a teachable moment for White Minnesotans who wonder why living here is so hard for our Black community members. Imagine, for a moment, the races of everyone involved in this case reversed. How might the events of that day have unfolded differently? 

If we are to move forward in a meaningful way after the murder of George Floyd, Minnesotans must grapple with that question with open hearts and minds. Like the Minneapolis Police Department, we need culture change.  Wouldn’t now be a good time to start?