Two degrees of reparation

AFTER GEORGE FLOYD died on the ground outside Cup Foods, in Minneapolis, last May, millions of Americans who joined the largest civil-rights demonstrations in the country’s history were in no doubt that he had been murdered. They had watched a horrific video, lasting more than nine minutes, which they believed showed a homicide taking place. They observed how Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, restrained Mr Floyd by kneeling on his neck. They heard how bystanders, including a nine-year-old child, said repeatedly that the policeman was killing him, and begged him to stop. Fellow police officers, and others watching live but remotely, voiced concern. Most powerfully, they heard how, handcuffed and prostrate, Mr Floyd himself warned that his life was slipping away. He told Mr Chauvin he could not breathe. Among his dying words were offers of love to his family.

After the three-week trial of Mr Chauvin in Minneapolis, it was still hard to imagine a jury could decide anything other than that a murder had taken place that day. After just one day of deliberations, and having put no questions to the court, the jury did indeed convict Mr Chauvin of both second-degree murder (which implies an unreasonable use of force, but not that he necessarily intended to kill) and third-degree murder (suggesting reckless disregard for life). He was also convicted of manslaughter. He could face 40 years in prison.

The prosecution’s case had been straightforward. Much rested on the now-infamous bystander video, on similar footage the police recorded themselves, and on powerful testimony by witnesses, including the nine-year-old. One official, who had been watching events by live video, recalled how she could not understand why Mr Chauvin, flanked eventually by three other police officers, held Mr Floyd immobile for so long, when there was no sign of threat or even resistance from him. She wondered if her video feed had frozen because of the unchanging image on her screen. Even when paramedics arrived and tried to resuscitate Mr Floyd, the police officer looked reluctant to stop applying deadly pressure. A former police chief testified that Mr Chauvin, an officer for 19 years, would have been taught not to use his knee on the neck of a suspect in such a way, and certainly not for so long.

Added to that was the evidence that accumulated before the trial. The city of Minneapolis, shortly before the court sessions began, said it was paying $27m—a record compensation sum—to Mr Floyd’s family. That naturally suggested an admission that Mr Chauvin had committed an unusually heinous crime. It clearly made things harder for the defence lawyers. Probably more difficult to overcome was the earlier conclusion from the autopsy on Mr Floyd. The examiners ruled that he died not coincidentally from some other cause (such as opioids or other drugs in his body) but clearly as a result of “homicide”. The defence did not put Mr Chauvin forward as a witness—understandable on the assumption that the defendant, in cross-examination, would be forced to explain how he had been the subject of 22 previous complaints or internal investigations.

After the guilty verdicts, is this an opportunity for further reform? It is increasingly common for shootings by police, or other violent acts, to be captured on video—either on bodycams or on bystanders’ phones. In many cities, too, the public release of official footage is obligatory within a short time of a fatal incident. That may give an impression that deadly violence by police is becoming more common, but in fact the reverse could be true. Historically it has been rare for serving police officers to be prosecuted (let alone successfully) for killing in the course of their work. By one estimate, in 98% of cases in which police kill someone nobody is charged with a crime. That may have created a sense of impunity, encouraging some officers to behave recklessly with the lives of those people they were supposed to protect. The Department of Justice has launched an investigation into the Minneapolis police department. But helping to end that sense that officers are above the law may be the most powerful, and positive, contribution that Mr Chauvin’s conviction will offer.■

(The Economist )