Monday, April 19, 2021

Closing Arguments

Over the weekend, reading about the wrap-up of the Chauvin trial and predictions about today's closing arguments by defense attorneys, I wondered how anyone is ever convicted of anything in this country. The lawyers made it sound as though reasonable doubt is so easy to establish for just one juror, which is all that it takes to hang a jury.

But we know that's not true: people are found guilty of things all the time, especially Black defendants. Even innocent people are found guilty (and occasionally later exonerated). 

Cop defendants, not so much, I know. Reasonable doubt for cops is pushed very far.

There are too many cases to mention where a cop (or cop wannabe) was acquitted or got a mistrial because of a hung jury, but here are just a few that came to the top as I was writing this.

Bree Newsome talked about George Zimmerman killing Trayvon Martin. She wrote:

I don’t know. I still remember the George Zimmerman trial. I assumed jurors would empathize with Trayvon and it wasn’t until after that I understood they didn’t because what happened to him would never happen to them or their sons. I don’t think there’s any reason to assume people are moved by video of Black people being murdered. It’s such an ingrained part of our society to make a public spectacle of Black people being killed as way of reinforcing our otherness.

Sarah Kendzior replied to Newsome:

I remember with Rodney King, the anticipation that it would be different, that the officers’ guilt was undeniable because this time the evidence was on video. I was a kid then and nothing has changed except there are more videos. No justice, only sequels.

I remember the outcome of the Geronimo Yanez trial, who killed Philando Castile, and I hate to admit that it still surprises me. I have heard since that it was exactly as I suspected: there was one juror who refused to acquit him and held out for a long time, but the other jurors wore that lone holdout down.

I was even more surprised, if that's possible, that the first trial of Michael Slater, the South Carolina cop who killed Walter Scott — who was completely unarmed and running away — initially resulted in a hung jury. (Slater later took a plea after federal civil rights charges were filed and he's serving 20 years.)

I did not watch today's closing arguments. But here are a couple of important things that happened.

Prosecutor Steve Schleicher, rebutting the defense's argument that George Floyd may have died from heart disease or a drug overdose while Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck, said, "Is that commonsense? Or is that nonsense?"

And, still Schleicher: "This case is exactly what you thought when you saw it first, when you saw that video ... This wasn't policing. This was murder. The defendant is guilty of all three counts. All of them. And there's no excuse."

Later, defense attorney Eric Nelson said, "A reasonable police officer takes into account the safety of the person they're arresting." Huh. We agree about that!

But then he claimed it was reasonable for Chauvin to think George Floyd was pretending he was dying. Even though his own closing argument included video showing a bystander telling Chauvin the bystander had trained at the police academy and "that's some bullshit ... you're stopping his breathing."

Nelson also insulted the intelligence of everyone in the room with this comparison: "People sleep in the prone position, people suntan in the prone position, people get massages in the prone position."

A friend of mine on Facebook put it this way: "If Derek Chauvin's actions are reasonable, and representative of what any officer would do, good luck to all of us."

Writer and critic Toure said this on Twitter: "If Chauvin did what a reasonable police officer would do, then why is it his boss testified against him? Why is it no officer from his department came to testify on his behalf?"

From beginning to end, I think the prosecution did what prosecutors should do, in going after cops who kill, but which they don't usually do to this extent. 

Something I read in the past few days made the point that jurors have grown up with Law & Order and they expect some pizzazz in the closing arguments. I think prosecutor Jerry Blackwell met that standard, to finish out the job. His final words were:

“You were told Mr. Floyd died because his heart was too big. The truth of the matter is that the reason George Floyd is dead is because Mr. Chauvin's heart was too small.”

It helps that what Blackwell said is clearly true and supported by the prosecution's case.


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