Wednesday, April 14, 2021



Shutterstock/Rena Schild

The Trial of Derek Chauvin

I have been closely following the trial of ex-police officer Derek Chauvin. I've missed very little of it. A couple of days ago I had one of those weird "parallel universe" experiences when the absurdity of what we are witnessing hit me in the face. The jury is being asked to accept that Chauvin kneeling on Floyd's neck with as much force as possible (calculated by pulmonary expert witness Martin Tobin to be some 90 pounds in total) did not cause Floyd's death. 

The case is historic in many ways, one of them being that it has an extraordinary amount of documentation from multiple types of cameras from different perspectives. So powerful are the videos that the only way Chauvin's lawyer, Eric Nelson, can defend his client is persuade the jury that something else was going on--the well-known "look-over-there" trick. 

Merriam Webster defines misdirection as

1. a wrong direction

2. a: the act or an instance of misdirecting or diverting
    b: the state of being misdirected

What Eric Nelson is engaging in is definition 2a in order to lure the jury into definition 2b. (Funnily  enough, that's what mystery writers do as well.)

Defense lawyer Eric Nelson (screenshot)

Planting seeds of doubt

If only one jury member dissents from the others, it will result in a mistrial, which in some ways is the worst possible outcome. At any rate, Nelson's task is arguably both difficult because of the video and easy because he only needs one jury member to "look over there." Much as we'd like to deny it, all jury members will bring along their belief systems and prejudices, and one of them may have just the right frame of mind for Nelson to wedge his way in and raise a doubt: Maybe, just maybe, if Mr. Floyd didn't have all those things "going on," he wouldn't have died:
  1. Drug use: that Fentanyl stuff can be pretty lethal. Floyd might have had an overdose. Plus, the methamphetamine could have combined with the Fentanyl to produce a deadly combination.
  2. Heart disease: Floyd had those bad coronary arteries. In fact, one of them was almost completely occluded. That could definitely kill someone. Plus, his heart was enlarged, so that sounds like something pretty bad.
  3. Covid-19: Floyd had the disease some months before, and that could have made his lungs less compliant, which would make it harder for him to breathe.
What makes these ideas so farcical is that if Mr. Floyd had a perfect cardiopulmonary system, pristine coronary arteries, a drug-free analysis, and no previous Covid-19, he still would have died because someone was kneeling on his neck for more than nine minutes. But what is logically simple and clear to one person may be cloudy to another. I call this confused thinking. 

An example of confused thinking is the idea that Sandy Hook was a fabricated event, or that Covid-19 is a hoax. In the latter case, this would mean all the countries of the world; every government; every doctor and nurse in every ICU across the globe who claim to have taken care of Covid-19 patients; all the media reporters from the US to New Zealand to South Africa to Nigeria to Morocco to Italy to Sweden; all the hospitals and clinics in the world; all the EMS personnel who answered calls to Covid-stricken homes, and all the families who claim to have lost their loved ones to Covid--yes, all of these people got together and agreed to make up a disease that actually doesn't exist. Confused thinking.

Ugly undertones in the trial

Black people recognize when a racist slur is being raised, whether blatantly or subtly. For example, when cross-examining the black MMA witness, Nelson was bent on getting the man to admit that he (the witness), had been angry at the defendant, which was the reason for all the derogatory names the witness called Chauvin. In fact, it was outrage, not anger, but still, anger over someone being killed right in front of you would be a perfectly defensible reaction. But that wasn't the point. The point was to paint a picture of an "angry Black man" who was "distracting" Chauvin from his duties, somehow causing Chauvin to sustain the assault for more than nine minutes.

There were other racist-based notions put forward that were designed to engender negative feelings toward Floyd, even though it is not Floyd on trial, it is Chauvin. For example, the idea that Floyd was one of these worthless, inner city, criminal drug addicts. Nelson even suggested Floyd might have taken drugs intra-rectally, a baseless and rather offensive idea. Several jurors might have been repulsed by such an image, and once such an insinuation worms its way into the brain, it's hard to get it out. There's a double standard applied to drugs: when people of color use drugs, it's a crime (remember the 1980s?). When white people use drugs, it's an epidemic.

What the defense is trying to do is generate such a negative picture of Mr. Floyd that his murder somehow becomes justified. It represents the attempt to make the blameless become the blamed. "Yeah, I know it was kind of bad Floyd was killed . . . but you know he was a drug addict, right?" Confused thinking.

Anticipatory fear

Some may not see George Floyd's death in the same way African Americans do: a lynching. The only substantial difference between the old-style lynching by hanging and Floyd's killing is that he was horizontal on the ground instead of upright swinging from a tree by the neck. Michael Donald, currently featured in the CNN series The People Vs. The Klan, was hanged, but lynching is of course not restricted to hanging. Emmett Till's murderers beat him almost to death, gouged out his eye, shot him in the head, and then threw is body into the Tallahatchie River. Mack Charles Parker was treated in much the same way by a white mob. James Byrd, Jr., was dragged to death after being tied to the back of a vehicle.

Lynching is by definition extra-judicial, but African Americans cannot but help conflating lynchings with killings by police officers, because we are all aware that in the United States South, police forces were originally designed to preserve the practice of slavery. Slave patrols were created to hunt down runaways and prevent revolts. So, the killing of George Floyd, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and a host of other victims hearken back to those days, and generate a particular kind of anguish and despair among African Americans that others might find difficult to grasp. The reality remains to this day: it's nigh impossible to get a white police officer convicted for killing a black person. 

The anticipation or even the contemplation of a Derek Chauvin acquittal sets up incredible dread and apprehension in the minds of African Americans. It's the fear of reliving the profound psychological pain that will result if that scenario comes to pass and reliving the resulting demonstrations and unrest. And all the while, African Americans go back to that fundamental question: "Why, exactly, do they hate us so much?" 


  1. Thanks, Sujata. I have also been following the trial, but not as completely because of the time difference. (It's broadcast live on BBC news world-wide - unless the Duke of Edinburgh dies which, of course, takes precedence for several days.)
    What I don't really understand is the difference between 2nd degree murder, 3rd degree murder, and manslaughter. I presume 1st degree murder is premeditated?

  2. Oops, sorry, I forgot to put my name at the top of the piece. Yes, 1st degree=intent + premeditated
    2nd degree=intent, but no premeditation
    3rd degree=no specific intent or premeditation, but with knowledge that one's action might cause death of the victim.
    Involuntary manslaughter=accidentally kill someone
    Voluntary manslaughter=heat of passion

  3. Thanks Kwei. I completely agree with your depiction of misdirection here at the Chauvin trial. It is quite sickening.

    To confuse things - Kim Potter, the policewoman who just killed Duante Wright a few miles from where I live - has just been charged with second-degree manslaughter. I'll have to look that one up.

  4. I agree with everything you said. It is a lynching and so many of these killings are, too. And, yes, Chauvin's attorney is doing everything he can to get his client off. Someone said on a TV news show yesterday that no white cop was ever convicted in Minnesote of killing a Black person. The only cop convicted of murder is a person of color who shot a white woman. He was convicted and sentenced and he felt remorse. Why are there these ridiculous traffic stops anyway? For barely a reason. Duante Wright called his mother to say he was being hassled over an air freshener hanging down a window. So what? Sandra Bland was stopped for a traffic violation. And poor Eric Garner was selling cigarettes! And George Floyd's life was less important than $20.
    90% of cops voted for the last guy in the White House, a blatant racist. It's systemic. Everyone has to object and show solidarity with the Black community and demand drastic change. This is why some people say "defund the police," because of these constant atrocities. Nothing will change without change throughout the system.
    Thank you for writing this. I feel so badly for everyone who is in danger and their families. It's an awful way to live.

    1. Thanks, Kathy. Yes, the psychological toll is quite real. As an African American, I can't help tensing up when I see a police vehicle, even if it's going in the opposite direction! Whenever feasible, I travel by Lyft for fear of being pulled over in my own vehicle. This hasn't happened to me for several years, thankfully, and to be honest, in the past when I've been stopped by police, I have always been treated with courtesy by cops of both white and Latino heritage. In all the cases but one, I wasn't ticketed. One of the cops, a Latino, as he was releasing me, actually wished me Happy Birthday because the following day was my birthday! So, no, they are not all bad, but I always fear that I'll get that ONE who could end my life with a bullet.

  5. And CNN analyst Don Lemon feels anxiety when he sees police cars when he is driving. And Sen. Cory Booker told of dressing up in a suit instead of wearing his T-shirt and shorts to do errands.
    And now there is the senseless death of 13-year-old Adam Toledo, in Chicago. He was told by cops to put up his arms. He complied. Then he was shot.
    There are protests going on there, and it seems like there is solidarity from multiple groups and communities. I'm glad you have been treated respectfully.

  6. Wow, I didn't know that about Cory Booker. It says something when a senator, of all people, has such a fear. And Don too. All of us know that social status may not make the slightest difference.