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Opinion When to ignore race in the Derek Chauvin trial

Former police officer Derek Chauvin sits in front of a picture of George Floyd during Chauvin’s trial in the death of Floyd in Minneapolis.
Former police officer Derek Chauvin sits in front of a picture of George Floyd during Chauvin’s trial in the death of Floyd in Minneapolis. (Jane Rosenberg/Reuters)
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The trial of Derek Chauvin is technically not about race but is, in fact, all about race. To ensure that justice is done, and that any conviction is upheld on appeal, the prosecution should ignore the racial symbolism of the case against the former Minneapolis police officer — even while the defense deals ugly race cards.

“There is no political or social cause in this courtroom,” defense attorney Eric Nelson proclaimed in his opening statement. Then he depicted George Floyd, the Black man his White client is accused of murdering, as a drugged-out criminal who so violently resisted arrest that officers were forced to consider “the maximum restraint technique. It used to be called the hobble or the hog tie.” Nelson promised that jurors “will see that three Minneapolis police officers could not overcome the strength of Mr. Floyd.”

Depicting Black male victims of police violence as drug-addled criminals with brute strength is not new. It worked in 1992, when a jury acquitted four Los Angeles police officers of assault after they struck Rodney King with a baton 56 times and kicked him seven times. An expert witness testified that the force the cops used was necessary because they had reasonably assumed King was high on PCP, which gave him “superhuman strength.” Never mind that no PCP was found in King’s system.

One officer’s explanation for beating King was that police weren’t allowed to put him in a chokehold. The procedure had been banned in Los Angeles since 1982. Pinning arrestees under an officer’s body weight was permitted in Minneapolis last May, when Chauvin drove his knee into Floyd’s neck. But applied to the neck, such holds are considered deadly force — the same category as an officer firing her gun.

Race could reasonably be raised here: Would Chauvin have done this to a White person being arrested for using an alleged counterfeit $20 bill? Probably not. Since 2015, almost 60 percent of incidents of Minneapolis police using force have been against Black people, who account for only 20 percent of the city’s residents, the New York Times reported last year from city data.

Still, prosecutors are unlikely to bring up race because they don’t have to prove anti-Black bias to get their convictions. It’s a more strategic decision for Chauvin, who might think it would help his case to demonstrate to the jury — which includes six people of color — that he is not racist. Don’t be surprised, especially if Chauvin does not take the stand, if his attorneys call a Black person as a character witness to try to communicate this.

Public perceptions of the case are all about race. Floyd’s death inspired thousands of demonstrations last year — the largest social justice movement in U.S. history. The idea, as the Rev. Al Sharpton said last week, that “Chauvin is in the courtroom but America is on trial” hung over some testimony, such as when teenage witness Darnella Frazier said that she saw her father and brothers when she looked at Floyd and how “that could have been one of them.” Or when Genevieve Hansen, a White off-duty firefighter who called 911 after witnessing Floyd’s arrest, testified that, after the paramedics drove Floyd away, she was “still worried about the witnesses on scene. Particularly because they were people of color, Black men.”

So far the race talk in the courtroom has been about this bigger picture, rather than Chauvin’s actions. Alas, this is treading into dangerous waters.

If Chauvin is convicted, it should be because jurors have no reasonable doubt that he committed murder or manslaughter. It’s unfair to make him a stand-in for centuries of White supremacy, even when his treatment of Floyd illustrates our society’s devaluation of Black lives. Plus, this could give Chauvin grounds to appeal a guilty verdict.

In our legal system, the accused is afforded more rights than the prosecution — the constitutional design erring on the side of letting the guilty go free rather than convicting the innocent. Chauvin’s defense can summon racist stereotypes. But if prosecutors allow the national reckoning on race to play out inside the courtroom, they risk any conviction being vulnerable in an appellate court.

The trial’s most poignant witness thus far was Charles McMillian, the 61-year-old who urged Floyd to cooperate with the police, telling him, “You can’t win!” His warning sounded like an emergency version of “the talk” that parents of color give their children about how to survive encounters with law enforcement. But it didn’t work for Floyd, who responded, “I am not trying to win.” Floyd said “sir” and “please” to Chauvin, but Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds, according to prosecutors — including two minutes after he learned that Floyd had no pulse.

Focusing on Chauvin’s excessive violence — what one senior officer called “totally unnecessary” — is the prosecution’s best hope for bringing Chauvin to justice. His conviction would be the most productive way for the legal system to acknowledge that one Black man’s life mattered.

Paul Butler, a Post contributing columnist, is the Albert Brick Professor of Law at Georgetown University. A former federal prosecutor, he is the author of "Chokehold: Policing Black Men."

Read more:

Radley Balko: Don’t read too much into the outcome of Derek Chauvin’s trial

Eugene Robinson: Black Americans all got Derek Chauvin’s message. Loud and clear.

The Post’s View: No jury should accept that Derek Chauvin was doing what he was trained to do

Paul Butler: This new ruling could let the suspect in George Floyd’s killing go free

Eugene Robinson: The world saw George Floyd’s final minutes. Now it will see whether he gets justice.