This is the Derek Chauvin trial, not the George Floyd trial, in spite of what Chauvin’s defense team seems to want you to think. It’s important to bear that in mind before we even begin to deconstruct what happened in the courtroom today.
The opening statements on the first day of this highly anticipated trial gave a clear indication of how we can expect proceedings to continue. The prosecution made a profoundly compelling opening argument backed by video evidence; Chauvin’s defense attorneys, on the other hand, sought to make this all about Floyd. What we saw, in other words, was yet another post-mortem criminalization of a Black victim of police brutality.
The prosecution began today’s proceedings by outlining an expansive case arguing that what Chauvin did was not only unjust but that his unnecessary use of force was the cause of Floyd’s death. Prosecutor Jerry Blackwell sought to preempt the defense’s incoming arguments by declaring that Floyd’s death was a homicide as a result of the oxygen deprivation caused by Chauvin, and not a drug overdose. The prosecution then played a nine-minute video of Floyd’s death. It never gets easier to watch.
According to CNN’s senior legal analyst Laura Coates, under Minnesota law, prosecutors don’t have to prove Chauvin’s actions were the only cause of Floyd’s death but that they were a “substantial causal factor.” The argument that this was a homicide is backed by two separate autopsies, but one of the autopsies differed on the exact cause of death. This was a difference that the defense seized upon.
Led by an opening statement from Chauvin’s defense attorney Eric Nelson, we were introduced to a defense strategy that has already been tested for months among the audience of Fox News. The defense sought to focus on George Floyd’s conduct before his killing and his alleged drug use. While the prosecutors told the jury to “believe your eyes,” the defense team sought to make the jury disbelieve them. In one particularly eye-opening moment, Nelson stated that there was “no evidence that Mr Floyd’s airflow was restricted.” Our eyes, ears, and reasoning faculties beg to differ.
The defense then took a sudden turn into really bad-faith territory, attempting to shift partial blame for Floyd’s death onto bystanders who had tried to intervene. Nelson argued that the crowd of people that began to gather as Chauvin kneeled on Floyd was perceived as a threat and “distracted” officers from providing care to Floyd.
This is contradicted by the video. Bystanders clearly yelled at Chauvin to take his knee off Floyd’s neck and for officers to provide appropriate care as he pleaded for his life. Chauvin looked at the crowd as they told him to get up, seemingly acknowledging their concerns, but continued to kneel on Floyd’s neck. Indeed, Chauvin continued to kneel even after Floyd was visibly unresponsive and after a bystander identifying herself as an off-duty firefighter repeatedly begged him to check Floyd’s pulse.
The first witness called to the stand was a 911 dispatcher who called the sergeant of the officers on the scene out of concern over Chauvin kneeling on Floyd. In other words, she called the police on the police. That gives you some of an idea of the situation those watching events unfolding found themselves in.
The defense we saw today was all too familiar. We saw efforts to criminalize Trayvon Martin during the trial of George Zimmerman. We saw it happen to Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Ahmaud Arbery, and the list goes on. I could write an entire article just listing the names of Black people who had their character questioned and attacked after they became victims of racist violence.
And here’s the thing: even if everything the worst right-wing pundits say turns out to be true, it doesn’t matter. The price of being a flawed character is not execution. No character trait deprives a person of their right to life and due process. Nothing that George Floyd, or any other unarmed Black person killed, did justifies an extrajudicial killing. Nothing.
Derek Chauvin faces three counts: second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. It’s unclear whether the defense we saw today will sway the jury. But one thing is clear: this strategy is as old as racism itself and exhausting to witness. Black people are tired of being deemed guilty until proven innocent.
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