Chauvin’s Conviction Is the Exception That Proves the Rule

The former Minneapolis police officer was found guilty on all three counts he faced—but his trial was a demonstration of how difficult efforts at accountability remain.

Derek Chauvin
Court TV / Pool / AP

Updated on April 20 at 8:26 p.m.

Jurors in Minnesota took barely 10 hours to convict Derek Chauvin in the May 2020 death of George Floyd on all three charges against him, offering a quick and decisive verdict in the most-watched police-misconduct case in years.

The speedy result, announced in a Minneapolis courtroom this afternoon, is a sign of how unusual the case is. The verdict is a victory for justice and a relief to people, politicians, and police in Minnesota and beyond, who had braced for unrest if Chauvin had been found not guilty. But the trial also demonstrates why the courts will remain a challenging venue to reform law enforcement in the United States.

“It was a murder in full light of day, and it ripped the blinders off for the whole world to see,” President Joe Biden said this evening. “For so many, it feels like it took all of that for the judicial system to deliver just basic accountability.”

Floyd died outside a Minneapolis convenience store after Chauvin, then a Minneapolis police officer, knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes. A clerk at the store called police to report that Floyd had tried to use an allegedly counterfeit $20 bill. Video of Floyd gasping for air and calling for his mother shocked the world and led to the largest civil-rights protests in the United States in decades.

Chauvin faced three charges: second-degree murder, or a death that occurs in the course of another crime, in this case an assault on Floyd; third-degree murder, or killing someone when acting without regard for human life but also without intent to kill; and second-degree manslaughter, or killing with “culpable negligence.”

Floyd’s death was depressingly familiar—the latest in a string of deaths at the hands of police—yet it was also an exceptional case. Bystanders captured video of the entire sequence, showing Chauvin’s apparent calm indifference as he slowly squeezed the life out of Floyd. Condemnation came quickly—not only from many longtime critics of police violence and from ordinary citizens, but also from law-enforcement officers of all ranks around the country.

Historically, murder prosecutions of police officers are extremely rare, and among the few cases that are tried, convictions are also extremely rare. (One of the few notable convictions in recent years was the 2019 conviction of Mohamed Noor, another Minneapolis officer, in the 2017 shooting death of an unarmed woman.) Prosecutors and juries alike tend to give officers broad leeway to act as they see fit in the heat of the moment.

The Floyd case, however, gave prosecuting attorneys a strong hand to play. Although they called a long succession of witnesses, including experts on both medicine and policing, prosecutors Steve Schleicher and Jerry Blackwell appealed to jurors in their closing argument to use their “common sense” in assessing the case against Chauvin. They noted that even a 9-year-old eyewitness could tell that Chauvin was killing Floyd. But prosecutors also relied heavily on the police to make the case.

“To continue to apply that level of force to a person proned out, handcuffed behind their back—that in no way, shape, or form is anything that is by policy,” Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said on the stand. “It is not part of our training. And it is certainly not part of our ethics or our values.”

Several other members of the department, including a use-of-force trainer, also testified that Chauvin had used more force than he should have. Lieutenant Richard Zimmerman, the department’s most senior officer and leader of the homicide unit, described Chauvin’s actions as “totally unnecessary.” Prosecutors called a Minneapolis firefighter, Genevieve Hansen, who came across the scene while off duty and begged police to check Floyd’s pulse.

Despite the backlash against police since Floyd’s death, Schleicher framed the case against Chauvin as a defense of officers who do things right, portraying the defendant as a bad apple who besmirched his colleagues’ good names.

“This is not an anti-police prosecution,” he said. “It’s a pro-police prosecution.”

Given the evidence, Chauvin’s attorney, Eric J. Nelson, faced a difficult task. Rather than mount a vigorous defense of his client’s innocence, Nelson sought to muddy the waters by convincing jurors that the state hadn’t proved their case beyond a reasonable doubt.

Nelson argued that Floyd could have died of a number of causes, including existing medical conditions, drug use, and carbon monoxide emitted by the police cruiser. He also argued that Chauvin was acting reasonably in a challenging situation, as onlookers harangued him—though Chauvin had created that situation himself, by refusing to get off Floyd’s neck. Nelson also found himself in the unenviable position of having to show clips of video of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd to make his defense. His arguments did not sway the jury. Jurors asked no questions of the judge during the course of their short deliberations.

Chauvin could face years in prison, but today’s verdict does not end the story. He will almost certainly appeal the case. Judge Peter Cahill said yesterday that comments from Representative Maxine Waters, calling for “confrontational” protests if Chauvin was not found guilty, might be grounds for an appeals court to overturn the trial. In an unusual move, Biden earlier today said he was hoping for the “right” verdict in the case, though he said he’d waited until the jury was sequestered for deliberations to say so. Three other officers on the scene still face charges, and their trials have not begun.

Assuming the guilty verdict stands, Chauvin’s conviction is an important instance of accountability, and will come as a relief to the millions of people outraged by Floyd’s death, but it doesn’t make for much of a model. Police leaders don’t usually feel such a need to make an example of an officer, and they don’t typically testify so bluntly against a former officer. There isn’t always video evidence so clear and compelling. Despite all of these factors, prosecutors still felt the need to portray their case as pro–law enforcement. If all of this is necessary to convict a former officer, convictions will remain rare—and reform will have to take place outside the courts.