The police officers who beat Rodney King to a pulp were acquitted. The self-appointed vigilante who shot Trayvon Martin to death was acquitted. The police officer who killed Philando Castile after a routine traffic stop — just miles from the Minneapolis intersection where Floyd died — was acquitted.
It feels risky to have any confidence that this time the outcome will be different, even though it feels as though it should be. It’s not just that the prosecutors seeking to convict Chauvin of murder have presented what seems to me an overwhelming case. This trial and the context in which it’s taking place are different from the other proceedings that led to such shattering disappointments.
Never that I can recall, in all the attempts to hold police accountable for unjustified killings of African Americans, have we heard such damning testimony from the highest levels of the police department in question. Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo told the jury last week that Chauvin, once he had Floyd in the prone position, should have quickly released the pressure he was applying to Floyd’s neck and back — rather than kneeling on Floyd for more than nine minutes.
“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,” Arradondo testified. “It is not part of our training. And it is certainly not part of our ethics or our values.”
Other officers took the stand to attest that Chauvin had never been trained to put his knee on any suspect’s neck. The “thin blue line” solidarity that we’ve come to expect is present in this case, but in a way that excludes Chauvin. The only consensus we’ve seen thus far among police officers is that what Chauvin did was obviously, tragically, unambiguously wrong.
Police officers, including an expert witness on use of force from the Los Angeles Police Department, also blew holes in the likely defense argument that Chauvin was distracted or even threatened by the onlookers who watched and recorded Floyd’s death. Surveillance video proves that there was no angry mob on the scene. Instead, a handful of horrified bystanders obeyed the command to keep their distance — even as they implored Chauvin to relent because they feared they were watching a man being killed before their eyes.
Some of the most excruciating testimony has come from medical experts who described, in agonizing detail, the nature of Floyd’s death. Martin Tobin, a Loyola University Medical Center pulmonologist and expert on the mechanics of breathing, had the jurors examine their own necks to identify the anatomical features he was describing: the hypopharynx toward the front, the nuchal ligament in the back.
For me, the most searing moments of the trial thus far came when Tobin used video footage to show how Floyd, his neck and chest compressed by Chauvin’s weight, struggled to breathe — how he desperately tried to use his right hand to push against the pavement or the officers’ squad car to create space for his lungs to expand. And then Tobin showed the moment when Floyd’s leg lifted in an involuntary spasm — an anoxic seizure — marking the lack of oxygen to the brain. Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for at least two minutes after learning he had no pulse.
I’ve been a journalist my entire adult life. I am good at viewing tragedy with detachment because that is my job. But as I watched Tobin’s testimony, I had to wipe tears from my eyes.
Floyd’s death is fully documented on video recorded from multiple angles: the onlookers’ cellphones, the officers’ body cameras, a surveillance camera across the street. All the jurors have to do is believe their own eyes and ears. I should be able to expect that they will do so. I should at least be able to hope they will.
But hope still feels dangerous.
Eminent expert after eminent expert has explained why Floyd’s heart disease and his history of opioid abuse did not cause his death. But Chauvin’s defense has yet to make its case, which will surely try to paint Floyd as a junkie and a thug, a bad hombre who either deserved the treatment Chauvin gave him or would have dropped dead anyway from heart disease and drug use.
I want to believe jurors will see Floyd simply, and fully, as a man. Too often, that has been too much to hope for.