John Maynard Keynes and Paul Samuelson have both been credited with the dictum that “when the facts change, I change my mind.” So, what I once believed to be highly improbable — a murder conviction in the trial of the ex-Minneapolis cop who knelt on George Floyd’s neck — has a better than even chance of coming to fruition.
I think Derek Chauvin’s case for acquittal is reeling.
Why? Two things: The prosecution laid out a masterful roadmap of physical and testimonial evidence, combined with recent high-profile events — fatal police shootings in Brooklyn Center, Minn., and Chicago — that will undeniably impact the jury’s big-picture framing of circumstances.
When the trial started, I wrote that prosecutors may have overcharged Chauvin. That they were much more likely to get a conviction on manslaughter rather than murder. But they’ve presented a compelling case to change that opinion.
Three weeks into the latest trial of the century, the defense rested on Thursday, leaving only closing arguments and Judge Peter Cahill’s final instructions to seal the former cop’s fate. The prosecution will argue that callous indifference and a knee injudiciously applied to George Floyd’s neck by an armed instrument of the state should result in a murder conviction.
The role of Chauvin’s defense counsel, Eric J. Nelson, will be to sow doubt in jurors’ minds. Nelson will counter the prosecution’s charges with the contention that Floyd died from cardiac arrhythmia — the result of underlying medical conditions, ingestion of a toxic combination of methamphetamine and fentanyl, and exposure to exhaust fumes from a police vehicle at the scene.
I still think prosecutors succumbed to public pressure in overcharging a case of manslaughter. However, Special Assistant Attorney General Jerry Blackwell’s command of the courtroom and questioning of witnesses — allowing powerful testimony to have maximum impact, indelibly stamping in the jury’s subconscious the palpable pain and perception of unequal justice — may very well result in a murder conviction.
The prosecution bears the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt and certainly committed a few unforced errors during the trial. But it also has a jury that likely is being pressured by what it sees on television. If the police shooting of Michael Brown in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, served as the catalyst for the Black Lives Matter movement, Floyd’s death has led to ruinous civil unrest in the wake of any and every fatal use-of-force incident. The jury certainly understands the stakes.
The Chauvin jurors are only partially sequestered and Cahill denied the defense motion for a change of venue. To be quite honest, locating someone on the island of Borneo without a formed opinion would be a daunting task. Jurors are human. They have been treated to almost an entire year inundated with violent imagery of American cities burning and ensuing anarchy under the auspices of protests against racial injustice. How can all of this not impact their deliberations?
Outside pressures exerted by the threat of violent protests may unfortunately and unfairly influence them. This sets up a viable path to appeal for the defense.