Every lawsuit tells a story. Some are only about the immediate parties and participants. Others present "big pictures" about our basic institutions, our political and moral values, and, for better or worse, our concepts of justice.
Black men are nearly three times as likely to die from police use of force as white men.
The Derek Chauvin trial for the murder of George Floyd is one of the most significant and high-profile legal dramas of our time. In big-picture terms, it tells the story of unending racism and unrelenting police brutality in the United States.
U.S. law enforcement has a long and shameful history of violence against unarmed Black people, stretching from the slave patrols of the antebellum south to the 2014 slayings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; twelve-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio; and Eric Garner in New York City; to the 2015 execution of Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina; the shooting of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2020; and Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, on April 11.
According to a report released by National Public Radio earlier this year, since 2015, police officers have fatally shot at least 135 unarmed Black people across the country. NPR also found that at least 75 percent of the officers involved were white.
Black men are especially vulnerable. A 2016 study published in the American Journal of Public Health concluded that Black men are nearly three times as likely to die from police use of force as white men.
In all, police in the United States shoot and kill about 1,000 people a year, according to a database constructed by The Washington Post. Only a small percentage of the cases result in the filing of criminal charges, however. Citing figures compiled by researchers at Bowling Green University, the Post notes that between 2005 and February 2021, a mere 130 officers were charged in connection with a fatal shooting.
Equally disturbing, less than half of those charged were convicted—whether of murder, manslaughter, or a lesser-included offense like assault.
Of all comparable incidents, the Floyd case most closely resembles the arrest and savage beating of California motorist Rodney King in 1991. And as the prosecution of Floyd’s accused killer—former Minneapolis police officer Chauvin—approaches its conclusion, it is King’s case that is most troubling as a potential harbinger of an unwelcome outcome.
After a high-speed car chase, King was pulled over by a group of Los Angeles Police Department officers. Alighting from his vehicle, King was ordered to the ground, where he was stunned with a taser, repeatedly kicked in the head and body, and pummeled more than fifty times with police batons until he was rendered motionless, badly bruised and bloodied.
The King case illustrates the high bar that even the most skilled criminal prosecutors must meet in police misconduct cases.
As in Floyd’s encounter with Chauvin, King’s beating was videotaped by a civilian who lived in an apartment across the street from the scene of the arrest. Although the video was taken in a pre-Internet age, it nonetheless went viral, airing time and again on TV stations not only in Los Angeles, but around the world, creating a clamor for justice on King’s behalf.
Four LAPD officers—three white and one Hispanic—were in due course charged with state crimes under California law for assault and excessive use of force. Astonishingly, despite the graphic violence caught frame by frame on film, all four were acquitted in a trial the following year. Within hours after the verdicts were announced. Los Angeles erupted in riots, arson, and looting that lasted six days and claimed sixty-three lives.
The King case illustrates the high bar that even the most skilled criminal prosecutors must meet in police misconduct cases. Although two of the King defendants were convicted in a federal civil rights trial in 1993, the other two were again acquitted.
Every prosecution has its weaknesses, including those with clear video evidence of the crime itself. In the King state court trial, the weak link proved to be the jury’s perception that King, a Black man who stood six feet three inches tall and weighed some 225 pounds, posed a greater danger to public safety than the police who abused him. As one juror told the Los Angeles Times after the verdict, King “brought the beating on himself” by being non-compliant and combative after his arrest.
If there is a weak link in the Floyd murder trial, as many commentators have suggested, it is likely going to be causation. To convict Chauvin, prosecutors have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Chauvin, who pressed a knee into Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds, caused Floyd’s death by asphyxiation. In the prosecution’s view, any other contributing conditions, such as Floyd’s pre-existing coronary artery disease or drug use on the day of his arrest, may not be regarded as independent and superseding causes for his demise. The defense needs only to establish reasonable doubt about the precise cause of death.
In the end, the verdict may come down to the instructions on the law of causation that the trial judge reads to the jury after both sides have rested.
Despite the mountain of evidence introduced against him, could Chauvin be acquitted or, at the very least, secure a hung jury unable to arrive at a unanimous verdict? It’s doubtful, and there is reason to be optimistic that this time, in this trial, justice finally will be served.
Then again, we’ve heard this story before, and it hasn’t ended well.