George Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer touched off a worldwide reckoning on racial justice and use of force, building on the outrage that had grown with each high-profile police killing in recent years.
It was more than five years ago that protesters in Minneapolis took to the streets, upset by the fatal shooting of a 24-year-old Black man named Jamar Clark by a white Minneapolis police officer.
“The chief of police said we are a nation of laws and a city of laws. So in a city of laws, if someone attacks somebody, if someone kills somebody, it’s illegal and therefore you go to jail,” activist Mel Reeves told a crowd at the time. “Why is there this expectation that the police will not go to jail?”
At that point in late 2015, no police officer had been charged with killing someone while on duty in Minnesota. Despite pressure from activists that culminated in a two-week protest outside of a police station, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman chose not to file charges in that case, either, pointing to testing that found Clark’s DNA on an officer’s weapon and conflicting statements from witnesses.
But now a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, is set to go on trial to face charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s killing. Jury selection begins Monday in Minneapolis. And some in the community are watching closely to see whether jurors will send a white former officer to prison for the death of a Black man.
The first charges
It’s rare for officers to face legal consequences in the killing of civilians. Minnesota’s first case of an officer being charged came as recently as 2016.
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Philando Castile was driving through the suburb of Falcon Heights with his girlfriend and her young daughter when he was pulled over by St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez.
Castile, who had a legal permit to carry a firearm, told Yanez that he was armed. Yanez told Castile not to pull the weapon out, and Castile told Yanez he wasn’t. Yanez fired seven times into the vehicle.
Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, started streaming on Facebook Live right after the shooting, and that video spread widely in the ensuing hours.
Legal experts say the smartphone has profoundly affected how the public views police killings. Courts and juries have also traditionally given police officers more credibility than typical witnesses. But video evidence can contradict their testimony — and puts pressure on the criminal justice system to respond.
“It used to be that there would be, ‘He says, he says,’ ” said Richard Frase, a professor of criminal law at the University of Minnesota Law School. “Now, we've got all of these cases on video, which not only reduces the swearing back and forth about what actually happened, but it also ups the ante in terms of public opinion.”
Every police-custody death is different, and Chauvin’s case stands out in at least one significant way, said Frase, who predicts that the former officer would have a difficult time claiming self-defense.
Jurors are typically asked not to examine the officer’s actions using 20/20 hindsight, but to consider the actions that a reasonable officer could take in making a split-second decision. Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for about nine minutes.
“Policing is dangerous, and police have to make decisions quickly, and so this system up to now, especially in the absence of video, was reluctant to second guess those decisions,” Frase said. “Chauvin is not a self-defense case, no claim of that whatsoever.”
Prosecuting the police
Another factor that seems to be shifting in some places across the country is the role of prosecutors, who rely on the cooperation of police officers to successfully prosecute cases every day. The public’s opinion has always helped influence how prosecutors do their jobs, said Kate Levine, a professor at Cardozo School of Law in New York state.
“Until national attention was really focused on police causing harm, the prosecutors were able to sort of just accept what the police said, about incidents of violence by the police, and not really look too much further,” Levine said.
With Clark’s killing, Freeman, the Hennepin County attorney, announced that he would not bring the trial to a grand jury, which had been the common practice. Grand juries had been heavily criticized because the hearings are secret and because the proceedings had never ended in charges.
Chauvin’s case is unique because the prosecution is being led not by a county attorney, but by state Attorney General Keith Ellison. It also includes experienced prosecutors from the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, as well as private attorneys who are volunteering their time to help prosecute the case.
Other legal observers will be watching to see if, in 2021, defense attorneys will try to impugn the character of the victim. At the Yanez trial, defense attorneys repeatedly argued that Castile was responsible for the shooting, referencing his marijuana use, the way he told Yanez he was armed and his body language during the stop.
In the Chauvin case, Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill has knocked down requests from the defense to introduce Floyd’s criminal history during the trial. But defense attorneys have already signaled that Floyd’s drug use, including the methamphetamine and fentanyl found in his blood, will be at the heart of their arguments that Chauvin’s knee didn’t cause Floyd’s death.
Chauvin’s trial may be a test of whether Americans now view all victims as equally worthy of the law’s protection, said Rachel Paulose, a former U.S. attorney for Minnesota and professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law.
“Does the defense play the blame-the-victim card from the bottom of the deck? And if it does, is that going to cause a backlash and will the jury react negatively to that?” Paulose said. “I really hope this trial shifts the culture, where we stop blaming victims of police brutality for their own murders.”
Yanez testified that he smelled marijuana while approaching Castile’s car and immediately feared for his life. He said he saw a gun coming out of Castile’s pocket, which wasn’t possible to confirm in squad camera footage.
Jurors found Yanez not guilty on all charges, including reckless discharge of a firearm because Reynolds and her daughter were in the car.
After the verdict, Castile’s mother, Valerie, told press and supporters that she’d had faith that her son would get justice, but had been disappointed by the criminal justice system.
“There has always been a systematic problem in the state of Minnesota,” Castile said. “It never seems to fail us, the system continues to fail Black people.”
Race and police prosecutions
The second time a police officer in Minnesota was charged for taking someone’s life was after the shooting death of Justine Ruszczyk in 2017, just months after Yanez was exonerated.
Ruszczyk, who was 40 and white and lived in an affluent neighborhood in southwest Minneapolis, called 911 because she thought she heard a woman being assaulted in her alley. One of the officers who arrived at the scene was Mohamed Noor, who shot and killed Ruszczyk after she approached the vehicle.
The jury found Noor guilty of third-degree murder and manslaughter, and he was sentenced to 12.5 years in prison.
In many of these high-profile police shootings, race is the elephant in the room, Paulose said. She asks why defense attorneys for Chauvin pushed to move the trial from diverse Hennepin County to whiter parts of the state.
“We do have a history in this country of meting out justice according to not only the race of the perpetrator, but the race of the victim,” Paulose said. “Do we truly believe that Black lives matter? And do we believe that people of color are entitled to the same dignity and presumption of innocence as everyone else?”
As the Chauvin trial is set to start, Noor remains the only police officer in the state to have been sent to prison for killing someone on duty. The officer was Black, and the victim was white.
A third law enforcement officer charged for an on-duty killing in Minnesota was found not guilty last year. In 2018, Washington County Sheriff’s Deputy Brian Krook shot and killed Benjamin Evans, both of whom were white, as Evans threatened to kill himself on a street in Lake Elmo. Krook’s attorneys argued that Krook fired when he saw Evans point the gun at deputies, but prosecutors said that Evans was shifting to point the weapon from his head to his chest.
Even with video evidence and one of the most aggressive prosecutions of a police officer in the United States, legal experts say that juries are unpredictable, and that some of the traditional advantages enjoyed by police officers in courtrooms may still affect the outcome. Successful prosecutions of police officers are rare nationwide. Fewer than half of officers charged in killings in recent years have been convicted, according to data collected at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
Many community members still believe the criminal justice system simply wasn’t designed to hold police officers accountable, said Andrew Gordon, a deputy director at the Legal Rights Center, a nonprofit law firm in Minneapolis.
“Historically, there's a lot of trauma in the Black community,” Gordon said. It’s “tied up in the facade of justice, the facade of doing something, following a process, following the rules, following a law, and seeing that, at the end of that process, this individual is found to have done nothing wrong, when we know that that's not true.”
There’s a lot of anxiety in the community as Chauvin’s trial approaches, said D.A. Bullock, a Twin Cities filmmaker and activist.
“I feel the trauma of all the past times that this happened, all the former cases, with Philando [Castile] and with Jamar Clark,” Bullock said. “I feel the weight of all of those cases together — it doesn’t just exist as a singular case.”
The Minneapolis Police Department and Mayor Jacob Frey have announced a number of policy changes since Floyd’s killing, including adjusting the circumstances where officers are allowed to use force and the department’s disciplinary policies.
But even if Chauvin is convicted, some might not necessarily see that as justice, said Gordon, who doesn’t believe the city has made any fundamental changes to how police officers interact with the public.
“We know that two days from now, a month from now, a year from now,” Gordon said, “there's gonna be another Black kid who's going to get shot by the police.”