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I’m glad Derek Chauvin is going to jail.
The long awaited verdict was handed down on Tuesday after a quick jury deliberation. When the jury’s decision was announced, it was a stunning indictment of Chauvin’s actions with a conviction on counts of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
I’ll admit to some satisfaction in watching the verdict. As we heard from countless law enforcement professionals during the prosecution of the trial, what Chauvin did when he kneeled on George Floyd’s neck was not only unnecessary, but it showed brutal disregard for Floyd’s life.
Chauvin was morally and criminally culpable for Floyd’s death, and because of that I am glad he is going to jail.
But I will admit that, regardless of my agreement with the outcome, I’m extremely uncomfortable with how the trial itself was conducted.
Key to my discomfort is the bedrock American belief that anyone accused of a crime is entitled to a fair and impartial trial. This is something that is absolutely fundamental to our justice system, and its abandonment can never be tolerated if we ever want to live in a country that actually values justice.
To illustrate the importance of an untainted process in the concept of justice, consider a different kind of situation.
Imagine that a murderer is at large, and a police officer comes to believe with absolute certainty that a suspect is guilty of the murder. Unfortunately, though, there isn’t enough evidence to prove it, and the murderer will walk.
Unless, of course, that officer fabricates evidence that will lead to the arrest and conviction of said murderer.
Some would say this is justice. Most of us, I hope, know better. Allowing the process itself to be corrupted in search of a just end opens up a world of problems and potential abuses that will likely be visited upon the innocent by self-appointed vigilantes in law enforcement in the future.
Back to Chauvin, our guarantee of a fair trial is similar in its importance. Did he receive one? There are two main problems with it that may result in your answer being “no.”
The first was the venue. Given the on-the-ground realities in Minneapolis — universal attention, mass protests, a direct feeling of impact on virtually everyone who lives there — it is unreasonable to assume that a jury made up of local people would be able to be truly objective.
The second, and perhaps the more important problem, is the activities that have been happening in the streets of Minneapolis in anticipation of the verdict. Protesters have been demonstrating non-stop, and have been visited by a parade of opportunistic politicians who are far more concerned with their own profile and the attention they get than with the outcome of the trial.
One of these irresponsible politicians was Rep. Maxine Waters of California, who irresponsibly went to a Minneapolis suburb and inflamed tensions, rather than cool them. She told journalists that protesters needed to “stay on the street” and “get more confrontational” if Chauvin was acquitted.
“We’re looking for a guilty verdict,” she continued, “and we’re looking to see if all of the talk that took place and has been taking place after they saw what happened to George Floyd.”
In response to Waters’ comments, Judge Peter Cahill, who was overseeing the case, told defense attorney Eric Nelson on Monday that “Congresswoman Waters may have given you something on appeal that may result in this whole trial being overturned.”
Imagine putting yourself into the shoes of the jury for a moment. You are from the area, and have seen the passion in the streets first hand. You’ve heard the demands, and the constant demonstrations — that have occasionally devolved into riots — outside the courthouse.
You know that if you vote to acquit Chauvin, or even to partially acquit him, you are likely going to set in motion a reaction that will result in widespread rioting in multiple American cities, and a feeling among millions of Americans that the justice system has abandoned them. Given that pressure, how likely is it that you would even consider acquitting Chauvin?
In the end, that is my problem with the trial — that considerations other than the facts of the case were weighing on them, and likely impacting their decision. My problem certainly wasn’t the outcome, as I believe Chauvin is guilty and deserves to go to jail for a long time.
But it is entirely possible for even a hopelessly tainted jury to nonetheless come to the right conclusion. I just wish this verdict had come in a way that more properly guarded against the perversions of the process that threaten to undermine the entire system.