DEREK CHAUVIN: GUILTY, GUILTY, GUILTY
After nearly a year since the world was hit with the prolonged image of a White police officer’s pressing his right knee on a Black man’s back and his subsequent death, after nearly a year when we learned the dead man’s name was George Floyd and the shouts that BLACK LIVES MATTER were heard in different languages across the world, after three weeks of the trial of Derek Chauvin, Floyd’s murderer, came the verdict: guilty on all counts.
Derek Chauvin was never charged with first-degree murder, the most serious offense in the United States. Popularized by television detective shows as “murder one,” it refers to premeditated homicide. Rather, Chauvin received three lesser charges, to wit: second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. I am not a lawyer, nor do I teach criminology. Therefore, my knowledge of the intricacies of U.S. law is limited beyond being able to differentiate between “murder” and “manslaughter,” the latter of which was defined to me long ago as unintentional or accidental homicide.
I am glad the reports of the trial came with definitions for all three of the charges. According to Tami Abdollah and Kevin McCoy in USA Today (April 20, 2021), “Second-degree murder is causing the death of a human being, without intent to cause that death, while committing or attempting to commit another felony. In this case, the felony was third-degree assault. Chauvin was charged with committing or intentionally aiding in the commission of this crime.” In turn, “Third-degree murder is unintentionally causing someone’s death by committing an act that is eminently dangerous to other persons while exhibiting a depraved mind, with reckless disregard for human life. Chauvin was accused of committing or intentionally aiding in the commission of this crime.” Finally, “Second-degree manslaughter is culpable negligence where a person creates an unreasonable risk and consciously takes the chance of causing death or great bodily harm to someone else. Chauvin was charged with committing or intentionally aiding in the commission of this crime.” What the three charges have in common is that they all assume the defendant killed a person by virtue of engaging in an act that was so irresponsible that it dismissed that person’s life. On the other hand, the three charges differ in the matter of intent: did the defendant intend to kill the victim or was the murder an unintended consequence of his actions?
I made a point of raising the verdict in my classes. Most of my students are Black, mostly from the United States. One said that the trial took too long to end. I countered that I thought it was quite expedient relatively speaking; the O. J. Simpson trial, for example, lasted much longer at more than eight months. I remember tuning in every afternoon, the scenes playing more like those from an afternoon soap opera than from a excruciating double murder. Another student said that she was tired of seeing White perpetrators be protected while in custody, whereas those from her community get shot on the spot. Yet another student lamented that nothing had changed in this country; Blacks still don’t have the right to live their own lives.
I disagree that nothing has changed. The social change brought about by the struggle for civil rights, the topic of my senior class, did happen; the problem is that it has not gone far enough. Changes in the law are significant, but they may be easier to make (as hard as it is to make them) than to change people’s hearts and minds. I said that I doubted that Derek Chauvin would have been convicted or that the president of the country would have expressed relief about the verdict 60 years ago. I also pointed to the interracial composition of the jury (another change brought forth by the gains of the civil rights movement), and I felt for it. The jurors did not have an easy task in determining intent. Besides having to ponder the evidence carefully, they had to decide whether to buy into the strategy of the defense, which was to allege that Floyd’s hypertension and drug use had caused his death instead. Evidently, they sided with the expert’s conclusion that the nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds that Officer Chauvin spent pushing his body weight, aided by gravity, on Floyd’s back cut off the air flow to his lungs. Chauvin murdered Floyd by asphyxiation.
An acquittal would have been a slap in the face, but the result of the trial is no victory either if we consider that, on the very day of the verdict, a 16-year-old Black teenager in Ohio was shot four times by the police, who took her for a felon when they saw her branding a knife against some women. Shoot first and learn later that she was the one who had called the police to defend her against women who were attacking her. The week before, a police officer in Minnesota shot a 20-year-old Black man after a traffic stop; she alleged that she took her gun when she meant to fire her Taser. In sum, unjustified murders of Black lives by the police go on. George Floyd’s murder has not changed the world after all.
Of the Chauvin verdict, President Biden remarked, “This can be a giant step forward in the march toward justice in America.” Let us hope it is indeed a move forward rather than Sisyphus’ work.