Recent criminal trials show civil rights progress, persistent bias


 During the month of February, two guilty verdicts and a prison sentence were handed down in three high-profile trials that involved the killing of Blacks. What these decisions reveal about the prospects for Black justice in the U.S. legal system is now the subject of widespread analysis. 

Three former Minneapolis police officers were found guilty by a federal jury last week of depriving George Floyd of his civil rights in 2020. J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao all were found guilty on all counts by a 12-member all-White jury.

“I was surprised,” MSR legal analyst Georgetown Adjunct Law Professor Angi Porter told the newspaper last week on the three ex-officers’ guilty verdict. “Honestly, I thought they would let Thomas Lane go. It’s a good thing, and hopefully it leads to the Minneapolis Police Department at least changing up its training, because this case really put the training on full display.”

“[The jurors] were looking at the fact that these three officers deprived George Floyd of his constitutional rights under the Fifth Amendment—the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure,” continued Porter, a former local attorney and federal judicial law clerk, University of Minnesota discrimination investigator, and former Mitchell Hamline Law School adjunct professor. “He [Floyd] had a serious medical need and that was not addressed. He was dying and nobody did CPR. Nobody addressed his clear medical distress.”

Submitted photo

The verdict, Porter hopes, will make all police officers understand that they have a legal responsibility and duty to protect all those in their care from harm and not look the other way, even if a fellow officer is causing such harm.

Porter also analyzed the guilty verdict handed down on three Georgia White men for committing hate crimes that resulted in the death of Ahmaud Arbury in 2020, a few months before Floyd was killed in Minneapolis that same year. The law professor said that although both trials were held in federal courts in St. Paul and in Georgia respectively, each had its distinctions.  

“The three MPD officers’ trial was not about race,” explained Porter. “It was about due process. The Arbury case was about [the three defendants] restraining or depriving Arbury of the use of streets and parks… The key element of the issue is they deprived him of his right to the street because he was Black, because of his race.  

“That was such an important case because we don’t see a lot of cases like this,” she noted. “Definitely not high-profile cases like this.”

Former Brooklyn Center police officer Kimberly Potter was sentenced Feb. 19 to two years in prison for fatally killing Daunte Wright, a sentence that both surprised and shocked supporters of the Wright family and family members themselves who publicly expressed disappointment with the seemingly lenient sentence.

Some compared the Potter sentence to that of former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor, who killed a White woman in 2017 and was later convicted and sentenced to more than 12 years in prison. However, the Minnesota Supreme Court threw out the original murder conviction and kept in place the second-degree manslaughter conviction, reducing Noor’s prison sentence to four years and nine months.

Potter was convicted of first-degree manslaughter, a sentence that under Minnesota sentencing guidelines calls for a minimum of seven years. Instead, the former officer got a sentence about 3½ times lower. She is expected to be released from prison in March 2023.

“It was just out of whack, totally,” observed Porter, “a lot shorter than I expected and the State expected.”

In Noor’s case, she pointed out that “4.9 [years] is not outlandishly longer than the presumptive sentence for second-degree manslaughter. First-degree manslaughter is more severe than second-degree. 

“The [sentencing] guidelines are not mandatory, but wherever we have discretion, that’s where bias operates,” said Porter, calling the Potter sentence a good example of such bias. “Racial biases are so deeply ingrained in American culture that people don’t even know they have them.” 

Porter further pointed out, “People don’t even think when they see the power of White womanhood and they see somebody like Kim Potter crying. They don’t even think about how they would feel if they watched a Black man cry under the same circumstances.

“The simple answer to such a disparity, a difference in sentencing,” concluded Porter, “is tears of White women in the U.S. are more powerful than tears of a Black man, including in the courtroom.”

Updated Wednesday, March 2, 2022.