- Sophie Jost & Nandini Singh
Justice Served: A Breakdown of the Derek Chauvin Trial
On May 25, 2020, George Floyd was brutally murdered on the streets of Chicago, sparking a global conversation not only about police brutality against African-Americans, but also shedding light on racism within the U.S. justice system. Derek Chauvin, Floyd’s killer, finally stood trial on April 20 of 2021, with 23 million people watching live.
For the countless activists of the Black Lives Matter Movement, this is much more than a trial of murder or manslaughter, but a chance for the victims of racism to finally be heard. Will the world see justice or not? Kaia Hirt, an English teacher at Champlin Park High School, chained herself to the fence outside the courtroom, and on the lock were the names of black victims. While interviewed, she claimed change will only happen when unaffected people start caring. Winning this case would show protestors all over the world the impact of their advocacy and that every voice truly counts.
The prosecution, who began the trial, clearly had a stronger stance, and focused on the emotions of the audience as well as the motives of Chauvin. Their main contention was that Floyd had died as a direct result of Chauvin’s horrific actions, rather than his previous heart problems. This line of argument required forensic specialists, some of whom claimed his cause of death was murder, and some of whom said it should have been classified as an “undetermined” cause of death. All of the members of the Minneapolis Police Department testified that Chauvin’s actions were excessive, unethical, and it violated training.
The prosecutors also made it very clear that they were prosecuting Derek Chauvin as an individual who had violated the laws of policing, instead of criticizing policing as a whole, as some media accounts suggested. As the trial proceeded, the testimony of the witnesses got increasingly emotional. The person who took the video, helplessly watching such a brutal act of indifference, but who started a major social and political movement, was only a 17 year old girl. Even though her testimony was through audio, her agony was felt by all those listening as she broke down into sobs recalling the horrific act.
Another crucial witness, Charles Mcmillan, was deeply affected by the trauma caused watching a man suffocate to death, and he could not withhold the tears and bring himself to speak. One question asked whether he felt concerned while watching Floyd, to which he responded in the affirmative. He also felt helpless and experienced survivor's guilt.
During the closing arguments, the prosecutors humanized George Floyd, by showing the Jury pictures of his childhood and family. He was a real person, and even though he used a fake $20 bill, he is not the one on the trial. He deserved a trial, but instead he’s dead. The prosecutors called Chauvin as unyielding as the pavement he was trapping Floyd on, and that this was purely an act of indifference and hatred. Instead of trying to pull many pieces of evidence, the prosecution primarily used the footage, which, it argued, sufficed to determine Chauvin’s intentions. They ended with, “Believe your eyes. What you saw, you saw.”
“Believe your eyes. What you saw, you saw.”
On the other hand, the defense struggled to provide a valid argument and find witnesses that would support Chavin’s case. It was claimed that Chauvin was a “reasonable police officer” just doing his job under stressful circumstances (Floyd did not commit any violent crimes, and there exists no hard evidence to suggest that he physically resisted arrest). Seeing as the trial barely lasted two days, it can be concluded that the defense heavily relied on picking apart the arguments of the prosecution rather than providing reasonable explanations for Chavin’s actions.
The defense battled medical evidence suggesting that Floyd could not breathe under the weight of Chauvin’s knee, and claimed that the combination of methamphetamine and fentanyl in his system and carbon monoxide (from the police car’s exhaust) in his lungs contributed to his heart failure. A medical professional compared the weight of officer Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck as equivalent to “losing a lung,” which causes brain damage and then death.
However, the defence still claimed it was the drugs in Floyd’s system, (although they had been largely proven to be a non-fatal amount) that directly contributed to heart failure, not asphyxia from the weight of Chauvin’s knee. In fact, it was Dr. David Fowler who presented this claim, as well as the claim that carbon monoxide from car exhaust caused Floyd’s death. Fowler is Maryland’s former chief medical examiner, currently being sued for misrepresenting the autopsy results of the death of a black teenager with bipolar disorder killed by police. He has been accused by The American Civil Liberties Union of “creating false narratives about what kills black people in police encounters,” and this controversial past points to possible bias during the trial.
In terms of Dr. Fowler’s carbon monoxide claim, research done on Floyd’s blood during an autopsy showed that this could not have possibly caused Floyd’s death. The monoxide percentages were too low to have even been a factor.
The defendant, Derek Chauvin, was found guilty on all counts; murder in the second degree while committing felony, third degree murder, and second degree manslaughter. Although the prosecution pressed for a 75 year sentence, the maximum sentence is 40 years. The jury was a key factor in determining the verdict of the trial. They were a diverse group of people, and Mr. Nelson, a defense attorney, claimed the jurors felt “race - based pressure.” Despite the complaint, the court was not persuaded, and the guilty verdict remains final.
From a video that went viral of the Floyd family’s reaction to the trials, it was clear to see they were overjoyed by the results, clapping as every sentence said by the judge was a win for them. Shortly after the guilty verdict, the Floyd family received a call from President Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris to let them know they both were praying for the family.