Every jury trial operates on two levels: there is the serious question of what the verdict should be on the granular details of the evidence – not just who wins, but how much they get of what they are asking – and the broader risk of the jury doing something bizarre or unpredictable. In the Derek Chauvin trial, the serious question was whether Chauvin was properly guilty of manslaughter, or of second-degree murder. Not having followed the evidence at trial in minute detail, I was never going to second-guess the jury on that question. The good news is that the jury did not deadlock, and did not go off and do something wild.
Here’s the important point: juries are often hesitant, and rightly so, to second-guess cops when they make split-second life-and-death decisions. Those decisions may prove wrong, and on occasion they are justly punished as unreasonable, but cops tend to get the benefit of the doubt because most people understand that they need to assess threats to themselves and others in an instant, and it is all too easy to sit in judgment of that at leisure with plenty of time to review the situation, without adrenaline pumping and fear vivid. That can even work in the favor of cops in a case such as the Rodney King beating, an obvious overreaction but one that followed a lengthy high-speed chase that put the cops in genuine fear of death for themselves and others.
None of that was on the table for Chauvin’s defense. George Floyd died slowly, as Chauvin kneeled on him for eight minutes. No jury on earth was especially likely to see this as a reflex reaction in the heat of a moment. The cops had the right and responsibility to use some force to restrain and subdue Floyd, and maybe his death was due in part to other factors besides force. But the extended time involved in this case always made it likely that any reasonable jury would convict Chauvin of some crime bearing responsibility for the death of a man who did not deserve to die.
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