America’s Legal System on Trial

By Kenneth Tiven in Washington

The state of Minnesota is in the spotlight because just 10 miles from where the George Floyd case is playing out, a veteran police officer shot and killed a young black man, Daunte Wright, during a traffic stop on Sunday, claiming she confused her taser and her Glock pistol. She and her chief have resigned. She is being charged with second-degree manslaughter. Community demonstrations have taken place for several nights but without the viral video the emotional anger is more contained. The jury in the Chauvin trial has been told by the judge to pay no attention to anything outside the case they will decide.

 All the defense wants to do is plant the idea of reasonable doubt in the mind of at least one juror. A guilty verdict on one or all of the three charges requires unanimous consent among the jurors. In trying to reduce the impact of the nine-and-half-minute video of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck they have produced several experts who have suggested the literature on death by asphyxia does not support a murder charge against Chauvin. In cross examination the prosecution has emphasised the difference between controlled research and the reality outside the convenience store a year ago.

Rarely does a police officer charged with murder get tried or convicted in America’s judicial system. More than 700 people die at the hands of police every year, but few are captured on bystander cameras. The clarity and length of the video of veteran officer Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck and choking him is key to the prosecution. The Black Lives Matter demonstrations that followed raised the case to a national level regarding systemic racism within police departments.

The second defense argument is that Chauvin’s actions were consistent with police protocol and training. However, the Minneapolis police chief testified against Chauvin saying the use of force was beyond anything permissible. In fact, nearly a dozen other police officers and former cops spoke critically of Chauvin, breaking the so-called “Blue Wall of Silence” code that keeps cops from talking about what other cops have done.

The Minneapolis police testimony may be due to the specific nature of the case. “This case was so uniquely damaging to the department’s reputation, they feel uniquely compelled to correct the record and stand up for the department in this public-facing testimony. In a way that wouldn’t be true if it hadn’t been such an incredibly pivotal and unique case,” said Michelle Phelps, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota who has studied community views on the city’s police.

On the cause of death, the defense tried to emphasise underlying medical problems. The County Medical Examiner who performed Floyd’s autopsy said the cause of death was a homicide, caused by “cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression”. But did mention a lack of oxygen. Three prosecution medical witnesses have firmly said the choking—asphyxia—brought on other factors, but these would not have killed Floyd but for his physical abuse.

They said the absence of bruises from Chauvin kneeling on Floyd was meaningless, but that the weight of Chauvin pressing down on Floyd was still enough to asphyxiate him. For the defense, a former medical examiner argued the opposite. Does it help the prosecution to have three times what defense presented? The prosecution needs 12 jurors to agree, the defense lawyers need only one to not agree.

It is important to remember that Floyd and Wright are not on trial. What is on trial is the American legal system, of which the police are a component. Law enforcement is supposed to use force if necessary to bring suspects to the judicial system. Instead of delivering them to the legal system guaranteed under the Constitution we see police officers appearing to be judge, jury, and executioner.

Or in some cases, just acting arbitrarily while escalating a confrontation where none existed. A December case that just surfaced involved two rural Virginia policemen pulling over a new car with its temporary license tags on the window and not the bumper. The driver was an Army lieutenant in uniform and a person of colour. He was cooperative but they handcuffed him, threatened him and pepper sprayed him. Finally realising they had no case, they told him to go on his way but keep his mouth shut. He didn’t and sued the cops, one of whom has been fired after an examination off the body cam video.

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After four years of a white nationalist president telling police to be tough on activists and people of colour this behaviour is not a surprise. But the national government and the mood in the nation have shifted.

—The writer has worked in senior positions at The Washington Post, NBC, ABC and CNN and also consults for several Indian channels
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