Jury trials are funny things. For many years covering courts, I always found the time spent waiting for a jury to return its verdict to be exhilarating. For starters, and purely from a personal perspective, because juries sat late to deliberate, it meant overtime on the fortnightly pay cheque. And besides, you never knew just how the 12 people were going to see the case laid out before them by prosecution and defence. At the end, it all comes down to their decisions and whether or not there existed “a reasonable doubt”.
For anyone who has watched even a portion of the nine minutes of video showing Derek Chauvin slowly choking the life out of George Floyd on a Minneapolis city street in broad daylight on May 25 last year, any reasonable doubt of innocence went out the window — at least that’s what every right-thinking person would have hoped.
But Americans have been here before — videotape and all — as on April 22, 1992 a US jury returned verdicts of not guilty on four white Los Angeles PD officers charged with using excessive force in the brutal beating of black man Rodney King some months before. As LA mayor Tom Bradley noted back then: “The jury’s verdict will not blind us to what we saw on that videotape.”
In many ways, Bradley’s comments still hold true in the case of the killer cop Chauvin — we cannot be blind to what we saw on that tape as his sheer inhumanity and loathing pressed on the neck of the man slowly suffocating to death as the life was pressed out of him with each of those agonising nine minutes of visceral torture.
That mage, forever now ingrained in our collective psyche, is so brutal, so black and white — monochromatic murder — played to a gut-wrenching soundtrack of “I can’t breathe … I can’t breathe … I can’t breathe.”
It’s hard to fathom what was going through the 45-year-old police officer’s mind for so long. He ignored the entreaties of witnesses who begged for the pressure to be lifted, who warned that the 46-year-old victim was dying before their eyes, who recorded a murder in real time for the world to see, and who are forever scarred by this Chauvin’s professional commitment to protecting and serve the good citizens of Minneapolis — just as long as they are white.
According to MPD’s internal affairs section, Chauvin had 18 prior complaints filed against him for abusive behaviour. Would we have been in the position of tensely waiting for a verdict on Tuesday of appropriate action had been taken against him? But maybe we reached this moment of reset on race relations in the US because of the failure of the system. That is one where black people are eight times more likely to be stopped by police on average when driving a car. Or one that incarcerates blacks in American at a far higher rate than whites. And for longer custodial sentences too.
Chauvin’s actions breathed new life — yes, the analogy is poignant — into Black Lives Matter protests that reverberated across America’s divided cities and communities. It resuscitated the conscience of many who forgot that all are equal before the law, that justice is blind and that it matters not colour nor creed, no one deserves to be choked to death over nine last minutes of this Earth pleading for air under the knee of anyone — least of all a sworn police officer.
Maybe after Chauvin is sentenced and finds out in two months’ time just how long he will spend behind bars — the most serious charge of the three convictions relates to second-degree murder and carries a 40-year sentence — he might eventually find duties in a prison canteen. He worked at McDonalds as a teen and as a prep cook at a buffet restaurant while growing up in suburban Minneapolis. He did a stint in the US military reserve and that included two terms as a military police officer — whetting his appetite for dishing out his brutal form of street justice before leaving in 2000. A year later, he has joined the MPD.
Chauvin also moonlighted at a bouncer at a Latin nightclub and, according to the owner, was known to particularly aggressive with black clientele if things got rough.
His wife, Kellie, a real estate agent and photographer who came to American as a Laotian refugee, filed for divorce the day before criminal charges were formally filed against Chauvin in July. That was granted in February.
While he pleaded not guilty to the charges at the start of the three week trial beginning March 8, the narrative was set at the outset by that wholly damning video. His defence attorneys tried to blame Floyd’s drug history, his health, even carbon monoxide poisoning from the police SUV by which the handcuffed and fatally restrained victim lay dying — that video erased any reasonable doubt.
No reasonable person would kneel for so long on the neck of a handcuffed suspect; no reasonable person would ignore the nine minutes of pleas that “I can’t breathe”; no reasonable person would ignore the entreaties of bystanders; no reasonable person would put Floyd to slow death. Derek Chauvin is no reasonable person. He is a killer.
At least now he has inadvertently provided America with an opportunity for profound change. For too long, such opportunities have gone unheard. If Floyd’s death means anything, it is for a new start in race relations, one where police will be held accountable for not treating all as equal before the law.