I haven’t been following the trial of Derek Chauvin closely. For those who might not remember, he’s the guy accused of killing George Floyd last year. By kneeling on his neck. All captured on video.
On the surface, there’s the pageantry of justice.
Take a look at any picture involving the trial. There’s a judge at the bench. Witnesses on the stand. Counsel at their tables. The defendant alleged with actions that convened all of them there in the first place.
In media and fiction, I think many people here and around the world are conditioned to see all of this as theater with grounding in justice. Courtroom, flags, judge, jury, defendant, counsel, bailiffs – they all add up to a process that will lead to a resolution. That resolution will be something that might not be perfect, but it will be called justice.
But that’s assuming a lot.
It appears from opening arguments that Chauvin’s defense is going to center around lawful use of force and Mr. Floyd’s personal frailty. In short, Mr. Chauvin was doing something he could do as a police officer. Mr. Floyd helped cause his own death by taking drugs (I think defense has alleged these to be methamphetamine and fentanyl).
The narrative for the prosecution is that Mr. Chauvin did something dangerous, he knew it was dangerous, and he at the least didn’t care about the consequences. Prosecution has the burden of proving all the elements of the crime. That proof must exist beyond a “reasonable doubt.” It’s a term of legal art that will have a specific definition, read aloud to the jury right before it deliberates.
As stated above, trials have narratives that imply justice is involved. Except, in this process, we have two opposing sides talking about two different things. Each side will tell its story to complete strangers in front of a global audience. To many people, invested in the outcome, they need their belief in justice to be validated.
Where’s the justice?
This trial isn’t going to change Mr. Chauvin’s mind on whether he can kneel on a person’s neck for nine and a half minutes. It isn’t going to cause people across the country to embrace the nigh-unlimited power that police often get to exercise. It isn’t going to change many minds in a way that will enlighten them to consider peace over violence.
The situation gets uglier from there. People familiar with the justice system know that most criminal cases result in a plea agreement – meaning there is no trial. This has been true in cases where there isn’t much evidence or questionable confessions. In short, most defendants forego their day in court, and the number of defendants going to trial is on the decline. If the pageantry is so important to get this elusive justice, many defendants don’t seem to care too much for it.
Another problem: regardless of whether someone goes to trial or pleas out, innocent people will still go to prison. Note that I’m just referencing DNA exonerees, people who have had their innocence proven. It remains silent on whether anyone has been wrongly convicted and not exonerated.
All of this tends to support the proposition that maybe the pageant doesn’t get us justice. Yeah, it might be something people can live with. Those people are often not directly impacted by the consequences surrounding the pomp and circumstance of a criminal trial. They get to spend their lives forgetting all about Mr. Floyd’s fatal trip to a convenience store, a deadly encounter involving one person saying that he is justified in putting his knee on the neck of anyone in Mr. Floyd’s position.
Until that perspective changes, I don’t see how anyone can imagine justice being served.