It’s difficult to imagine an event, any event, when, literally, the eyes of the world are fixated on it. But now that the jury has retired to consider its verdict on Derek Chauvin (below), accused of being responsible for the death of George Floyd in May 2020, surely we are all looking at Minneapolis in Minnesota. The world is holding its breath.
6 white jurors and 6 black/mixed-race, collectively ranged between their 20s and 60s, are now in charge of deliberating over surely one of America’s greatest ever issues.
Weeks of emotive evidence are over in what was a highly charged atmosphere for anyone that watched proceedings ‘live’. Outside, the city has been poised on a knife-edge and some 3000 troops are on standby, awaiting for what many see as the inevitable civil unrest that is imminent, irrespective of the outcome. There have been lengthy opening speeches (a feature alien to our judicial system), incredibly tense and powerful witness testimonies, a vast array of conflicting evidence and closing speeches. Now it is up to them. They received robust and clear instructions from an excellent judge as to what questions they must address amongst themselves before reaching a verdict.
The accused (defendant) faces three charges, none of which are familiar to us here : second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. As regards charge 1, the jurors will require to be satisfied that Chauvin committed a serious assault and that he/his actions were a ‘substantial’ factor in his death. In other words he was ‘aware’ that his actions would bring a serious risk of causing death. Charge 2 is dependent on the jurors believing that the accused’s act was so dangerous that it demonstrated a wilful disregard for human life and charge 3 requires that he is guilty of ‘culpable negligence’. The latter is unique in that only three US states have such a charge.
Charge 1 technically can attract a sentence of up to 40 years but for an individual who does not have a schedule of previous convictions, the sentence would be less than a third of this, possibly around 12 years.
The same repeated scenario has remained persistent throughout the process – was Derek Chauvin ‘responsible’ for the death of George Floyd and were his actions ‘reasonable’. That ostensibly is the unenviable task of the jury.
It has felt that America has been on trial every bit as much as Chauvin. The ‘race’ issue is ubiquitous in that country and, almost beyond belief, there have been further shootings by Police since this trial started. The funeral of 20 year-old Daunte Wright is planned for this Thursday. To many outside of their country, we remain baffled by the behaviour of this world superpower. But surely the verdict, whenever it arrives, will be so seismic as to potentially change the fabric of American society.
The reality though is that the authorities will have very much considered a ‘not guilty’ verdict as much as the reverse. This would certainly explain the morass of state troops which have turned the city into a fortress but yet still there is deep unrest there day and night. Even President Biden is preparing to ‘address’ the nation once the verdict is out. Extraordinary.
As matters stand, Chauvin is innocent until proven guilty. Further, the prosecution have to demonstrate that his guilt is beyond reasonable doubt. In other words, if his defence team can sow elements of doubt as to (a) the cause of death – was it Chauvin kneeling on the accused or a drug/heart issue from which Floyd suffered and (b) was he ‘restraining’ Floyd lawfully (as per his training), then a not guilty verdict is eminently possible. Paradoxically, if they are satisfied ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that there was an element of intent or recklessness then they may return a guilty verdict.
But, confusingly, they may find him guilty of some or all or not guilty of some or all. Or they may disagree, creating a ‘hung jury’.
Both parties had excellent lawyers working on their behalf. Both presented good, well prepared, largely expected cases when they put their positions forward at the Hennepin County Government Center.
As I have stated here before, with the case sub judice it would be foolish of me (and arguably unlawful) to offer my ‘take’ on the evidence or, especially, my view as to what the verdict might be. No doubt the latter will disappoint certainly my students and former colleagues. I have my own views but will defer imparting them for now.
A huge majority of the country really wants a guilty verdict for ‘first-degree’ murder – but that is not one of the charges. One wonders (and hopes) that the 12 jurors with the herculean (or perhaps even sisyphean) task of deliberation do not buckle under the weight upon their shoulders. It is unfathomable to think of the pressure they are under…..from an entire country and a watching world.
You wouldn’t want to be in that Minnesota hotel right now with them, would you..??