Last week was a visual ambidextrous attempt to have one eye on my computer and the other eye on CNN watching the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is being tried for the murder of George Floyd. At times, I found myself captivated by the testimony. The trial has been at once shocking, riveting, and heartbreaking, and this week the defense gets its chance to present its case.
While watching the trial, I have wondered more than once about what is going through the jurors’ minds. How could they possibly not vote to convict Chauvin of murder? Maybe I’m heavily biased, but if I was sitting in the jury box, I’d have already made up my mind. Is my decision premature? The trial isn’t over yet; it’s close to wrapping up, but I can’t help but think the prosecution has made an open-and-shut case.
Was I the only one thinking this way? If you listen to the prognosticators and legal analysts on CNN and MSNBC, they are also lavishing praise on the prosecution, particularly the expert witnesses who have been called, and who have marveled trial watchers. There seems to be no doubt, at least from the numerous experts that have been questioned, that George Floyd died as a result of Chauvin’s inhuman and, perhaps, illegal actions.
For some personal grounding and a reality check, I wanted an outside opinion from an expert in our community. I reached out to fellow LGBTQ+ journalist and political strategist Jasmyne Cannick, who through her blog and media appearances has extensively covered the Los Angeles Police Department as well as criminal justice reform and the Black Lives Matter movement (she also famously helped bring accused predator Ed Buck to justice). Was I being too optimistic about the outcome, and is the trial really progressing that well for the prosecution? Will Chauvin ultimately be convicted?
I began by asking Cannick about why the defense has been trying to argue that threats from the crowd were part of the reason Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for so long. I asked her to explain why it seems to be a weak defense, given that the videos show there were only about a dozen people at the crime scene.
Those onlookers mainly kept a distance, and many of them were filming the crime with cell phones. Further, they were yelling at the officers, but those sounds were not deafening roars. An expert from the Los Angeles Police Department, Sgt. Jody Stiger, who is a use-of-force authority, said he did not perceive the onlookers as a threat. In addition, many of the witnesses swore they were not impeding the officers.
“The jury heard from many of the bystanders — including a 9-year-old girl, an off-duty firefighter, and a 61-year-old man who made it clear that they were watching the arrest and not interfering,” Cannick explained “The MMA fighter Donald Williams summed it up when he rejected the defense’s notion that he was aggressive. He replied saying that he was concerned and that ‘No, you can’t paint me out as angry.’”
The defense has also been trying to argue that drugs were a factor in Floyd's death, yet experts and even Floyd’s doctor disputed this. ER physician Bradford Langenfeld testified Monday that it's more likely Floyd died of loss or deprivation of oxygen than of a heart attack or drug overdose. Has the defense been making an effective argument about the drugs?
“The defense is grasping at straws,” said Cannick. “It’s a weak defense but a defense nonetheless. I don’t think the jury is going to buy that argument. There’s enough science to back up the doctors and other experts who say otherwise.”
What was truly out of the ordinary was the testimony of the Minneapolis Chief of Police Medaria Arradondo, who strongly condemned Chauvin's actions and fired him less than a month after the incident with Floyd. The chief said, under questioning, that he absolutely agreed that what Chauvin did violated department policy.
The police chief added, "Clearly when Mr. Floyd was no longer responsive and even motionless, to continue to apply that level of force to a person prone out, hands cuffed behind their back — that in no way, shape or form is anything that is by policy. It's not part of our training and it's certainly not part of our ethics or values." I asked Cannick how the jury could possibly discount the chief’s actions and comments.
“The chief’s testimony was unprecedented because it’s an unwritten rule that cops don’t testify against other cops,” Cannick pointed out. “Here in Los Angeles, we are used to our sheriff and police chief defending police officers no matter how heinous the accusation or clear-cut proof. Chiefs don’t usually testify against their officers. The Minneapolis police chief testimony is going to weigh heavily with the jury.”
Back to the expert witnesses, their testimony has been profound, particularly the calm and clear words from Dr. Martin Tobin, a pulmonary critical care doctor and national breathing expert from Illinois. He spent most of his time speaking directly to the jury and took complicated scientific terminology and made it easy to understand.
Tobin detailed the effect of Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck for the “vast majority of the time,” eventually causing a “low level of oxygen” and ultimately brain damage. And, he shockingly said the damage was so severe to the left side of Floyd’s lung, it was almost like it was surgically removed. I asked Cannick how important these experts’ testimonies have been to the prosecution’s case, particularly Tobin’s.
“In any case of this type, expert witnesses can make or break a case,” she surmised. “Dr. Tobin, the pulmonologist, told the jury that ‘a healthy person subjected to what Mr. Floyd [was] ... would have died as a result of what he was subjected to.’ Doctors, like police officers, tend to be believed by jurors. I think that Dr. Tobin’s conclusion that it was low oxygen and not drugs that killed George Floyd will have an impact on jurors during deliberations for sure.”
The week ended with testimony from Dr. Andrew Baker, the medical examiner who conducted Floyd's autopsy, and testified that heart disease and drugs contributed to, but did not directly cause, Floyd's death. Next week the defense will continue to present its case trying to get the jurors to buy that it wasn't Chauvin's actions alone that killed Floyd, which seems to be a tough sell.
With all of this evidence, all of this testimony, and what looks to be a very weak defense, the outcome seems to be a foregone conclusion. Based on the trial so far, I wanted to know from Cannick how likely she thinks it is that Chauvin will be convicted of Floyd’s murder. And if not a murder conviction, will a manslaughter charge come as a shock to her, and more importantly, to the community and for people of color?
“I think that the community is so used to juries being unable to convict police officers for anything that there’s no real hope that Chauvin will be convicted of anything,” she said with an air of disappointment. “I feel like the prosecution is making a strong case, but historically, jurors don’t like to convict police officers.
“Convictions, even in 2021 and even with all of the video evidence to directly contradict a police officer’s version of events, still remain relatively uncommon — murder convictions are even more rare. Due to the law, there is a low conviction rate for police officers. When you have laws that basically say that police officers are to be judged by ‘different standards,’ jurors tend to give the police the benefit of the doubt.”
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.