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D.J. Tice: The challenge of a fair trial for Chauvin

D.J. Tice, Star Tribune on

Published in Op Eds

In December the Hennepin County District Court made public a questionnaire it was sending to prospective jurors in the upcoming murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

To imagine giving honest answers to the court's lengthy list of queries — posed, the court explains, in hopes the written exam will "help to shorten the jury selection process" — is to understand why it might just take a little time to find impartial and unintimidated jurors for this case in this community.

It is to understand, in short, how staggering a challenge Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill faces in ensuring a proceeding that will actually deserve to be called a fair trial for Chauvin and eventually three other cops accused in the tragic and world-famous death of George Floyd on a Minneapolis street last May.

The challenge is that many minds have long since been made up by the worldwide dissemination of the shocking initial video images of one part of Floyd's fatal encounter with the police, and by the way his story quickly became an emblem, symbolizing centuries of racial injustice and the long history of police mistreatment of Black Americans.

But justice for all can exist only if — even in the most disturbing cases, when popular passions burn hottest — criminal conviction requires that the specific criminal nature of individual conduct is proven conclusively. That is not guaranteed, even in this case.

At one point, the court's juror questionnaire for this case asks: "Under our system of justice, defendants are presumed innocent of the criminal charges against them. Would you have any difficulty following this principle of law?"

At another point, the court inquires: "From what you have seen, read, or heard, do you have a general impression of the defendants?" Choices are offered, ranging from "Very negative" to "Very positive."

Were it not for the heartbreaking context, the main "difficulty" your average Twin Citian might face over questions such as these would be not laughing out loud.

From the moment this agonizing incident burst into the public's consciousness, the presumption of guilt regarding these defendants — the open-and-shut conclusion of guilt — has been loudly declared by virtually every prominent public official who has addressed the matter. And a, well, "very negative" view of the defendants has been widespread, too, among public officials and community leaders, in news coverage and commentary (including in the Star Tribune) and everywhere else.

On May 27, 2020, a day and a half after Floyd's death, and before much of anything was known about the incident beyond the initial disturbing video of Chauvin pinning a handcuffed Floyd to the pavement, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey demanded that prosecutors file criminal charges against the officers he had quickly fired:

"Why is the man who killed George Floyd not in jail?" Frey protested. "If you had done it or I had done it, we would be behind bars right now ... We cannot turn a blind eye ... I saw no threat ... ."

Minneapolis was soon in flames, and riots erupted in cities around the country. Two days later, presidential candidate (now President) Joe Biden weighed in on a campaign video, denouncing Chauvin for "an act of brutality so elemental, it did more than deny one more Black man his civil rights and his human rights. It denied him of his very humanity and denied him of his life ... ."

Gov. Tim Walz made comparable pronouncements in the early days, and in the middle of June he traveled to Duluth to commemorate the 100th anniversary of one of Minnesota's most shameful crimes — the lynching of three Black circus workers from a downtown lamppost by a mob of thousands that had rushed to judgment over dubious allegations of rape.

"There is an unbroken line between what happened on that street corner 100 years ago right to George Floyd's murder on the streets of Minneapolis," Walz declared.

Now, ordinarily, "under our system of justice," as the court says, whether Floyd's death was a "murder" akin to a lynching is the kind of judgment a jury would make. And it would come only at the end of a careful, impartial examination of all the evidence, including the defendants' side of the case.

 

But Walz, Biden and Frey were joined in rushing to proclaim guilt in this instance by both of Minnesota's U.S. senators, the Minneapolis police chief and state public safety commissioner, City Council members — and on and on and on.

Minnesota may need to consider whether there may be more than one disquieting similarity between Duluth 1920-21 and Minneapolis 2020-21 — if merely that order was restored to Duluth's streets only when the National Guard arrived.

Walz has now mobilized the Guard to reinforce the Minneapolis police out of concern that Chauvin's trial could incite unrest.

Suffice it to say that much of our community, far from presuming the innocence of these defendants, may have been left unprepared to peacefully entertain even its possibility.

Of course, all the presumptions of guilt are chiefly based on the bystanders' cellphone recordings of Chauvin kneeling on the side of a handcuffed Floyd's neck for close to 10 minutes. We would be in a safer situation if the general public better understood that defense attorneys can and will raise questions about whether this painful image captured a deliberate and heinous criminal act that unambiguously caused Floyd's death. Voluminous public filings reveal numerous not-ridiculous disputes that may arise at trial.

First, there is the question whether the awful-looking restraint maneuver Chauvin used was actually authorized at the time, or at least not clearly forbidden. In the wake of Floyd's death both the Minneapolis City Council and the state Legislature moved to decisively outlaw police use of chokeholds.

The length of time Chauvin persisted in kneeling on Floyd's neck, despite pleas from bystanders and concerned questions from his fellow officers, will likely be key in the case against him. But a jury may be asked to also ponder this:

If the tactic Chauvin used was already a crime when he used it, why was there such a rush to change policies and laws to forbid chokeholds immediately afterward?

Another basic question that could become complicated concerns how Floyd died. From reports beginning in the early days of the investigation — and in subsequent statements described in court filings — it has appeared that the Hennepin County Medical Examiner's Office found no physical signs of suffocation on Floyd's body, while it did find the presence of heart disease and dangerous drugs.

The medical examiner's report lists the "Cause of death" as "Cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression." A combination of causes is perhaps the best a lay person can do to understand what that means. And while classifying the "manner of death" as "Homicide," the report adds that "Manner of death is not a legal determination of culpability or intent, and should not be used to usurp the judicial process ... ."

As that judicial process continues, lawyers and expert witnesses will doubtless grapple in court over these and other points of dispute. There's no assurance how it will turn out, and maybe that's the point.

As the court's juror questionnaire puts it in another of its queries: "Under our system of justice, the prosecution has the burden of proving the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Would you have any difficulty following this principle of law?"

When a legal proceeding is as emotionally supercharged as this one, and has taken on such enormous symbolic significance, leaders of the community would seem to have a particular duty to urge the public to remain calm and patient, to respect the processes of law, and to withhold final judgment until all the facts and arguments from all sides have been fairly examined.

It's terribly late for that message to be delivered in this situation. But late would be better than not at all.

(c)2021 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
 

 

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