Derek Chauvin’s guilty verdict is a step toward justice and police reform–but it’s not the end of racism in the US

Philonise Floyd, Attorney Ben Crump and the Rev. Al Sharpton courtroom celebrate Chauvin verdict.
Philonise Floyd, Attorney Ben Crump and the Rev. Al Sharpton, from left, react after a guilty verdict was announced at the trial of former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin for the 2020 death of George Floyd. Former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin has been convicted of murder and manslaughter in the death of Floyd. AP Photo by Julio Cortez

Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck until he died, was found guilty of all three counts related to Floyd’s murder on Tuesday, in a case that “bucks up against 200 years of history in a way that is enormously refreshing but also deeply informative,” said Margaret Burnham, university distinguished professor of law at Northeastern.

Floyd’s death nearly a year ago touched off protests around the world against police violence and racial injustice. Floyd, a Black man, was unarmed when Chauvin, a white man, killed him. The event was filmed by a bystander, and the video ricocheted across social media platforms, stirring outrage over the clear falsehood in the way police reported the incident at the time.

“This was an unusual and rare case, and one has to ask whether it takes all of that in order to get to the right result, and if yes, then that alone is an indictment of a criminal justice system that we need to be able to depend upon,” said Burnham, who also founded and leads the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern.

Left to right: Margaret Burnham, university distinguished professor of law and director of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project. James Hackney is dean of the Northeastern University School of Law and a scholar of critical race theory. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

An overwhelming amount of testimony was presented by 45 witnesses during the course of the 15-day trial, and still people waited anxiously for the verdict on Tuesday—a testament to the lopsidedness of the justice system for Black and brown people who’ve been victims of police violence, said Richard O’Bryant, director of the John D. O’Bryant African American Institute at Northeastern.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” he said. “Even though this was all very clear and obvious, we’ve had cases where it was clear and obvious and the result still wasn’t what people had hoped for, going back to Rodney King,” a Black man who was beaten by four Los Angeles police officers in 1991, an event also caught on video by a witness. All four officers were charged with assault, and in 1992, all of them were acquitted.

Herein lies the historic nature of the verdict in Chauvin’s trial—and the history of violence and injustice to which it is the exception, Burnham said.

“When you have a system that is just a failure, which the criminal justice system has been for cases of this sort for forever really, it generates enormous cynicism and distrust and disengagement from the institutions that make up our society,” she said. “That’s what we’ve had with cases like George Floyd for 200 years; we’ve had repeated failures.

Richard O’Bryant, director of the John D. O’Bryant African American Institute at Northeastern University. Courtesy photo

“One case can’t change all that,” she said. “One case can illuminate how deeply the system has failed, and that’s what this case really does: It throws a light on the longstanding failures of the system.”

The verdict is a step in the right direction, not the end of injustice in the United States, said James Hackney, dean of the School of Law, and a scholar of critical race theory.

“I do think this was a watershed moment due to the massive attention paid to the George Floyd killing and the protest it evoked—the world was watching this verdict,” Hackney said.

“Justice, from a critical race theory perspective, doesn’t stop at this verdict but includes an examination of the impact of racism with respect to policing and the need for policy reform so that policing is fair in its application and that society is more fair overall in ensuring opportunities for advancement,” he said.

Chauvin and his lawyers claimed that he was using a standard restraining technique when he knelt on Floyd’s neck last May—something that was disputed during the trial by a lieutenant in charge of teaching use-of-force techniques in Minnesota.

Police departments around the country have already stopped training officers to use chokeholds, said Jack McDevitt, professor of the practice in criminology and criminal justice and head of the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern.

McDevitt said he was optimistic that the verdict might portend a broader change in policing, as well.

“I hope this is the beginning of a change where we, as a society, feel that police need to be held accountable for misconduct,” he said. “It’s the whole profession that needs to change, not just this one trial.”

The jury deliberated for roughly 10 hours after the trial and returned unanimous verdicts on all three counts.

The first charge, second-degree murder, was the top count in Chauvin’s case, said Daniel Medwed, university distinguished professor of law and criminal justice at Northeastern.

In Minnesota, a person is charged with second-degree murder when they intentionally killed another human being, but the murder was not premeditated.

The next charge of third-degree murder is a crime committed by someone who has “a depraved heart or mind,” according to the state statutes. The charge arises when a person is killed by someone who is indifferent to the sanctity of human life.

The final charge of involuntary manslaughter is a killing based on negligence.

Chauvin could serve as many as 40 years, the maximum sentence for second-degree murder. Third-degree murder carries a 25-year maximum, and second-degree manslaughter a 10-year maximum. Exactly how much prison time he’ll serve will be decided at a sentencing hearing in two months.

Judge Peter A. Cahill will “almost certainly” provide concurrent sentences, meaning that all three sentences could be served at the same time, Medwed said. In that case, Chauvin would be looking at 40 years in prison, at most.

But, as a first-time offender, it’s likely that Chauvin would serve much less time; probably closer to 12 years, Medwed said, unless the verdict is overturned in an appeal down the line.

While it is likely that Chauvin will appeal the ruling, it’s less likely that he’ll win, Medwed said.

“I would guess Chauvin’s defense attorney is about to file an intent to appeal, if he hasn’t already,” he said, minutes after the verdict was read on Tuesday.

Medwed said he expects the defense to appeal on the basis that the judge should have moved the trial outside of Minnesota, arguing that Chauvin “couldn’t get a fair shake” in a trial following an incident that sparked protests throughout the summer and fall in Minnesota and elsewhere.

As a former public defender who handled appeals, Medwed said that it’s difficult to win an appeal at all.

“The trial is really the seminal moment in a case, after that, the presumption of innocence is gone and there’s a firm presumption of guilt,” he said.

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