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George Floyd, Derek Chauvin and the American system of justice

  • by:
  • Source: Trib 247
  • 05/19/2021
Judge Peter Cahill
 Special to

 By Bill Juneau

  In America, criminal defendants are accorded the presumption of innocence and are promised a fair and impartial jury trial by their peers.

Is that what Derek Chauvin, 44, a police officer with 18 years on the job received as he was found guilty by a jury of two counts of murder and one of manslaughter in the death of George Floyd ?

Could this televised trial, punctuated by countless judicial errors inside the tense courtroom, located in a city set on fire in protest just months before, possibly be fair?

Was the jury impartial even though one member later admitted that he did not reveal his attendance at a Black Lives Matter event where Floyd's family spoke, during voir dire questioning by attorneys for the prosecution and the defense?

Might un-sequestered jury members, who had to pass through protective barriers and walk  along burned out city streets to get to court, have come to fear for their safety — and their city — if the "racist cop" was not found guilty?

These are the questions a higher court must decide.

Judge Peter Cahill has indicated that he will sentence Chauvin on or around June 16 for his crimes. Pursuant to Minnesota law, Chauvin faces a possible 40 years of prison on each charge.  Cahill, however, has said in a written order that Chauvin was unnecessarily "cruel" in his treatment of Floyd, and in view of this 'aggravating factor" he, as the judge, will be considering enhancing the punishment.

Defense Attorney Eric Nelson has filed a post-trial motion for a new trial alleging a series of mistakes by the trial judge, but Cahill is expected to deny that motion as it parallels similar petitions filed during the 21-day trial which Cahill repeatedly denied.

The appeal process will commence with a petition to the Appellate court which has jurisdiction over Hennepin county.  If the defense is unsuccessful, the case will move on to the Minnesota Supreme Court.  It is likely that the Chauvin verdict and petitions for its change will eventually wind up in the lap of the U.S. Supreme Court because of the many Constitutional issues raised.

Nelson and the Chauvin defense team will be contending in their appeals that the evidence against the policeman viewed in its entirety does not support a guilty finding, since the cause of Floyd's death was primarily due to a very sick heart, his severely blocked arteries and a body pumped full of  methamphetamine and  fentanyl.  The large amount of fentanyl in Floyd's system, aside from other factors and standing alone, would be  regarded as a fatal dose, according to doctors.

Even the Attorney General of Minnesota, Keith Ellison,  has  commented after the trial that he was doubtful there would be a guilty verdict.

When Officer Chauvin encountered the muscular,  six-foot, six inch Floyd on the evening of May 25, 2020, he knew he was dealing with an addict high on drugs and police were aware of his record as a criminal.  Floyd had been arrested nine times, and was convicted nine times for various crimes.  He served five years in prison for an home invasion during which  he shoved the nozzle of his loaded pistol into the swollen abdomen of a pregnant woman and demanded money — or else.

Evidence of Floyd's out of control conduct in prior arrests was also known to officers, but Judge Cahill ruled that such evidence would not be allowed in the trial and that ruling also is being challenged by defense attorneys in their appeal.

Videos of the police officer with his knee pressed against the defendant's neck circulated throughout the country and became the theme of "justice" for George Floyd. Violence and looting swept though the streets of major cities and was promoted by the organization, Black Lives Matter (BLM).  The fall out was overreaching contempt for all policemen and generated senseless cries for the defunding of police departments.

The media consistently painted the arrest of Floyd and his death as racially-motivated, and politicians, including President Biden, charged that police departments were  "systemically racist," and that the nation's problem was that of white supremacists.

As jurors were being selected for the Chauvin trial, the city of Minneapolis announced that $27 million had been awarded to the Floyd family for damages caused by his murder.  Did un-sequestered jurors hear of the  city's  determination of the policeman's guilt?  How did they not hear of this?

African American Congresswoman Maxine Waters screamed into microphones for all to hear that unless Chauvin was found guilty of murder there would be retaliation on the streets. "We mean business," she warned the world.

Did un-sequestered jurors who walked the Minneapolis streets, and passed the "George Floyd Square" and saw the burned down police station and boarded up stores feel threated as to what might happen if the jury did not find Officer Chauvin guilty?

Even Judge Cahill opined from the bench that Waters' behavior might itself be grounds for a mistrial, though he never ordered one, but could have — and should have.

The jury was composed of five black and five white skinned Americans and two persons who were biracial.   Following the trial, one seated juror, Brandon Mitchell, a 31-year old high school basketball coach, spoke publicly about the trial and of persuasive witnesses for the prosecution.

Subsequently, it was revealed that Mitchell had participated in a "justice" for Floyd spin off rally last August in Washington, D.C., at which Floyd family members spoke. The gathering had been arranged as a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther king.

At the rally, photographs were taken which showed Michell  wearing a BLM hat  and a tee shirt with the words, "Get Your Knee off Our Necks." During the voir dire of potential jurors, Mitchell answered "no" when asked if he had participated in protests on behalf of "justice" for George Floyd.

Was Mitchell an impartial juror?  Was the jury pool tainted? Defense attorneys believe that his presence as a juror cold have prejudiced other jurors and that Mitchell would never have been approved as an impartial juror had he answered more accurately.

Should the trial have been moved out of Minneapolis and to a another venue in Minnesota, because of the extreme publicity?  Judge Cahill denied motions for a venue change,  asserting that no other venue was any different.

Harvard Law School Emeritus Professor Alan Dershowitz, an expert in criminal law, has said that in his judgment, there was no way that Officer Chauvin could ever receive a fair trial in the Minneapolis atmosphere. Denying motions for relocation or delay by Judge Cahill was a big mistake, and will be key in the Chauvin appeals for a new trial, he said.

Bill Juneau worked for 25 years as a reporter and night city editor at the Chicago Tribune. Subsequently he became a partner in a law firm and also served as a village prosecutor and as a consultant to the Cook County Circuit Court and to the Cook County Medical Examiner. He is currently writing columns and the 'Florida Bill' blog.

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