Chauvin prosecution: Will it be a model or aberration?

legal insights

Toward the end of the Chauvin trial, several national journalists told me that this was the most well-tried case against a former police officer they had ever seen.  I have spent my entire career working inside the criminal legal system, and I know that what they said was true.  Whether it becomes a blueprint for how these cases are tried remains to be seen.    

This wasn’t a “typical” police brutality case.  Charges are usually brought by the elected county attorney where the crime happened.  While Mike Freeman pondered the appropriateness of charges while protests in the city gained intensity, and then filed the most defense-friendly complaint I have ever seen, Governor Tim Walz gave the case to Attorney General Keith Ellison. 

Lacking the personnel to try a case of this magnitude, Ellison recruited a talented staff of more than twelve lawyers from around the country.  Different lawyers handled appellate issues, the young witnesses, medical experts, and experts on use of force.  One of the experts, Dr. Tobin, a pulmonologist who testified without being paid, was the best expert witness I have ever seen in a courtroom.

The lawyers put together a compelling case, which centered the testimony of the community members who watched the horrific murder, and the life of George Floyd.  The evidence was overwhelming from a technical and emotional standpoint, and the jury convicted Chauvin of all three counts in a relatively short time. 

The existence of the “bystander” video, and the specific facts of this case, also make it very different than other police killings. Most involve an officer shooting a community member and then testifying, tearfully, that he was fearful and that he had to make a split-second decision. In contrast, Chauvin had nine and a half minutes to make a different decision, and plenty of people warning him that his actions were quickly becoming catastrophic for George Floyd.    

We may find out quickly whether the Chauvin trial will become the model for police killing cases because AG Ellison just accepted the prosecution of former Brooklyn Center Police Officer Kim Potter, who shot and killed Daunte Wright.  

In terms of police accountability, the Chauvin verdict was only the first step. We heard Chief Medaria Arradondo testify that what Chauvin did violate the policy, training, ethics and values of the Minneapolis Police Department.

 I believe that he authentically holds those aspirations, but many in the community, and public defenders who watch hours of bodycam footage, know that many police interactions with community members are very different.  We know there is a gap between the aspirational goals and the on-the-ground reality.  The question is—what we are going to do now to close that gap.