Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted April 20 on three charges in the death of George Floyd. Collectively, people across the country breathed a sigh of relief because far too often, the story has been police killing people of color with impunity, says an expert on race and the law at Washington University in St. Louis.
“I think it’s important to remember the extraordinary circumstances that led to the guilty verdict in this case,” said Daniel Harawa, associate professor of law and director of the School of Law’s Appellate Clinic.
“Initially, the Hennepin County attorney only charged Chauvin with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter; the second-degree murder charge was only included after the attorney general took over the case at the request of the governor. This surely would not have happened had the entire country not been up in arms,” he said.
“Second, the blue wall had to crumble. In a rare event, we saw Derek Chauvin’s former fellow officers, including the police chief for Minneapolis, testify against him. Third, we had to hear from people young and old testify about what it was like to witness a murder.
“We heard the trauma that they experienced and were still experiencing after watching Chauvin kill Mr. Floyd in front of their eyes. Fourth, the jury was remarkably diverse both racially and in background,” Harawa said.
This is unusual, he said, because in the run-of-the-mill prosecution, people of color are disproportionately struck from the jury.
“Fifth, and most importantly, the jurors — indeed, people across the world — were able to see what has now been determined to be a murder for themselves. The nearly 10-minute video of Chauvin’s knee dug into Mr. Floyd’s neck until Mr. Floyd took his last breath was played over and over again, leaving an imprint on everyone’s mind,” Harawa said.
“This is what it took to achieve ‘justice’ in this case,” he said “And with any one of these factors missing, the result may well have been different. George Floyd’s murder prompted a national reckoning. And while Chauvin being held accountable is surely a step in the right direction, there is still much work to be done. Since the testimony began in Chauvin’s trial, more than three people a day have died at the hands of law enforcement. Guilty verdicts can never make up for a lost life. Something must change. Hopefully this verdict is a catalyst.”