Much more than others (due to the nature of my job as a CNN legal analyst), I have closely followed the story unfold from its earliest moments. I was called upon to follow and interpret the case soon after the crime was committed, long before anyone realized the national moment it would soon catalyze. I know as traumatic as it was to watch the video of Derek Chauvin’s actions in George Floyd’s dying moments, I was certainly not prepared for what was to come. That sense of having to live with this story, days 24 hours a day, continued through the state’s decision to lay charges, jury selection, trial and conviction on Friday.
Beyond my professional role, much of this story has been personal to me as a black American man. Floyd’s death was a public reminder of what I’m sure virtually all black people in America are intimately aware of: racism is real; inequalities exist in the criminal justice system; even mundane encounters with law enforcement can quickly turn deadly. That Floyd’s death seemed to galvanize a national movement, and that the multiracial protests have brought relief and frustration to others and to me. Relief that eventually people are starting to understand what black Americans are facing on the streets at the hands of the police; frustration that it took the public slaughter of an unarmed man for them to get there.
After 13 months of daily and public living with this story, I have a few concluding observations.
First of all, today’s sentence is a reminder of something that came to my mind as a young prosecutor: “justice” is a relative concept. During those months, I cringed when I saw signs calling for “Justice for George Floyd”. What would that even mean? Despite her 7-year-old daughter Gianna’s heartbreaking statement during the hearing about how Floyd lives with her in spirit, no grief can bring Floyd back to his family. Even under the best of circumstances, criminal sentences are the result of choices made by imperfect humans in legislatures, argued by imperfect human prosecutors and defense lawyers, imposed by imperfect human judges. Our legal system is a model for others around the world, but there are countless ways to go wrong on a regular basis.
As I noted on the air during the trial, Chauvin could easily have been convicted of one or two, but not all three, of the charges against him. To this end, would a conviction for manslaughter, still an act of homicide and a serious offense (although likely to carry a lower sentence than that of second degree murder), would it still have constituted a measure of justice? In light of all we know about this case and its wider cultural significance, was a sentence of 22 and a half years “fair?” Given Minnesota’s sentencing laws and guidelines, it’s fairly easy to find a legally defensible sentence. But each individual observer of the outcome will have to decide whether he deems it worthy of the term “justice”.
Second, like all other homicide cases, this one was a tragic reminder of the complexity and fragility of the human body. I last worked on a homicide case in 2006. Since then, until the trial of Derek Chauvin, I had almost forgotten how a victim’s cause of death is a staple of life. prove at trial, requiring the same almost impartial level of evidence as a prosecutor. would use to establish that a crime occurred on a particular street in a particular city (in order to go to court, prosecutors must establish, or the parties must agree, that a crime physically took place somewhere in the jurisdiction of the court).
Even as a former prosecutor, I am still amazed at how this aspect of the trial upset me. It wasn’t because Tobin spoke of death in a methodical way; the best expert witnesses are able to present complex information in clear, measured terms that a jury can understand. On the contrary, it brought me back to the first time, years ago, I saw an autopsy photo on the job. Both were chilling reminders of how easily human beings – complex souls with loved ones, interests, dislikes, complexities and everything in between – can go from being fully here to just being. the.
Even a trial to justify the death of an innocent black man, in a case fraught with centuries of baggage around race, class, and the police, ultimately boiled down to the gruesome details of hard science. The fact that such a moment had to be reduced to a human physiology seminar reminded me of my own mortality, the fragility of existence, and the fact that Floyd the man was, for much of the trial, reduced to Floyd the body. It was a lot.
Finally, in that sense, the whole saga has reminded me that success in the two worlds I live in – the media and the law – requires a level of personal separation from the underlying subject matter of the work. This distance, on stories like this, comes at a cost. While as an analyst I have more leeway than my fellow journalists to bring my personal perspectives to work, maintaining any level of distance from material so deeply personal and intense has been, to put it mildly, a challenge . Today, as always, I am grateful for the platform, endlessly saddened by the topic, and concerned about the future that we all must share.
Much of the national tale of Chauvin, Floyd and the Grand Racial Calculus of 2020 is now closed. However, no matter how far the country has come since George Floyd’s death last May, we have a lot more work to do.