Guest Column

When the police are on trial

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Nine minutes and 29 seconds. That’s how long former Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, pressed his knee into George Floyd’s neck on May 25, 2020. We know this because remarkable cell phone video was shown to the world, and to the nine women and six men who make up the jury in the murder trial of Derek Chauvin. 

It’s hard to believe that it has only been 10 months since Floyd’s death. So much has happened in America since that Memorial Day weekend but it’s really a short amount of time for a high-profile case like this to come to trial. Chauvin faces three charges: second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. If convicted on the highest charge, Chauvin could serve up to 40 years in prison. 

We know that historically very few police-related deaths are charged as crimes.  And when they are tried, jurors are often hesitant to convict police officers, allowing them wide latitude in using force in the line of duty. In the United States, between 2005 and 2020, of the 42 nonfederal police officers convicted following their arrest for murder due to an on-duty shooting, only five ended up convicted of murder.

The most common offense officers were convicted of was the lesser charge of manslaughter, but even then, there were only 11 convictions. (Statista Research Department, June 10, 2020). But the Chauvin trial may be one of the rare instances where an officer is convicted, even of the high crime of murder.

Chauvin’s trial has been ground-breaking in many ways. The chief of police testifying against a former officer/defendant, as was the case in this trial, is almost without precedent. This is significant because even jurors who sympathize with the police will be able to stay loyal to their allegiance to law enforcement and still convict Chauvin, as he will be portrayed as a rogue cop. It is also significant that there were so many bystanders who were able to testify, often with great emotion, about the last moments of George Floyd’s life. 

When considered along with the video depicting the entire nine-plus minutes, jurors are seeing these events through the eyes of the victim, something that is rarely available in a murder trial. And this may be why the verdict will favor the prosecution: the witnesses were distressed because they could not intervene. EMS workers and bystanders all described the guilt they felt watching a man being killed in front of their eyes and not being able to do anything to help. This could be a call to action to the jurors who actually can do something to help. They can convict Derek Chauvin.

Janet E. Johnson is a criminal defense attorney in Northeast Florida. She is a member of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Florida Bar Association and has been featured as a legal expert on ABC News, CNN, Headline News, First Coast News in Jacksonville and NPR radio, among others.

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