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GREG HARTON: Can Chauvin trial handle the weight?

by Greg Harton | April 4, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

Working from home has given me a bit more of an opportunity to listen in on the Minneapolis, Minn., trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin.

Chauvin knelt on George Floyd's neck last May as Floyd's life slowly ebbed away.

Floyd's death was a travesty. The officers involved demonstrated a lack of basic humanity in the way they dealt with him. Nothing about a response to a report of a counterfeit $20 bill being passed at a local store should end in an excruciatingly torturous death of the man believed to have done it.

Critics will say Floyd could have avoided it all if he had just calmed down and done as the officers expected. That's a distraction. It's blaming the victim. As testimony from other police officers demonstrated last week, the nine-plus minutes Chauvin knelt on the neck of a fading Floyd, all while bystanders pleaded with him that Floyd was so obviously dying, did not comport to standard police procedure.

It quite literally represented overkill.

All that's been heard so far is the case of the prosecution. The witnesses testifying are doing so on behalf of the prosecution. Chauvin's defense case will come later.

As with every high-profile trial that so clearly demonstrates wrongdoing by a police officer, and especially the ones that focus attention on the way Black Americans are sometimes treated by law enforcement, public expectations are strong. It's easy to know a wrong was committed. And it's easy for the totality of frustrations about race and its role in American history to become the focus.

Al Sharpton, the civil rights advocate, put it this way last week as he appeared with George Floyd's family outside the courtroom: "Derek Chauvin is in the courtroom, but America is on trial."

It was a pithy sentiment sure to fit onto the nightly newscasts. And in the world of public perception and expectations, I don't think Sharpton is far off the mark.

In the courtroom, however, America is not on trial and no single verdict can right a long history of wrongs. His jurors will not be asked to determine whether Black Americans are sometimes inhumanely treated by someone wearing a badge. They will decide whether he is guilty of three specific charges.

Chauvin faces three charges the jury can consider: (1) Second-degree unintentional murder; (2) third-degree murder; and (3) second-degree manslaughter.

The first two charges are the most serious in terms of potential prison time. Prosecutors, on the first charge, will have to prove Chauvin caused Floyd's death while assaulting him. It does not require them to prove Chauvin intended to kill Floyd.

The next charge requires proof that Chauvin caused Floyd's death "by perpetrating an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind, without regard to human life."

And finally, the manslaughter charge requires proof that Chauvin was "culpably negligent" and took "unreasonable risk" with Floyd's life and, as a result of those actions, put Floyd at risk of harm or death.

Those jurors don't get to judge America. They don't get to judge history or current attitudes. They will be instructed to examine the evidence of what Chauvin did and determine whether it meets any of the standards set out by those legally defined violations.

The manslaughter charge seems a no-brainer so far, but I haven't heard any of Chauvin's defense. The others are more difficult to prove, though his behavior undoubtedly showed no regard for human life.

These kinds of trials make me nervous, because anyone with eyes can witness the utter inhumanity shown during those awful minutes George Floyd lay dying on a Minneapolis street. The trial, though, will turn on technical application of the laws as written in Minnesota, not on whether Black Americans have every reason to be angry at another example of incomprehensible mistreatment.


Greg Harton is editorial page editor for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Contact him by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @NWAGreg.

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