Derek Chauvin did not just murder George Perry Floyd Jr. He tortured him to death.
Maybe that’s what got the jury to find Chauvin guilty on all three counts.
Watching the closing arguments made by Hennepin County prosecutor Steve Schleicher, I should have known the jury would do that. But I didn’t let myself believe it.
Even though I wasn’t covering the trial, I always had it on in the background these last weeks. And when Schleicher began his close, I started taking notes, which I hadn’t done before. I had watched the nine minutes and 29 seconds of unbearable video. But this was different. I walked over from my desk and sat on the couch, rapt.
I watched Schleicher force the jury to pay attention to not only Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck but also the way the Black father, son, brother, and uncle writhed in pain beneath it, just to try to breathe. The lacerations on the victim’s cheek and shoulder, “the pavement tearing into his skin,” showed how he fought to stay alive, to open up his lungs, to breathe, Schleicher told the jury. And told all of us.
Floyd was “a human being crying out for his mother” in his last moments, the prosecutor said. He begged Chauvin, calling him “Mr. Officer,” to help him, saying, in an echo of another Black man murdered by police, the late Eric Garner: “I can’t breathe.”
He was denied. And he died. And Derek Chauvin is going to prison for a long time.
I can’t say that this closing argument is why. But it was devastating to me. I can only imagine that jury members, who’d been served a sometimes mesmerizing, sometimes tranquilizing roster of witnesses over the last few weeks, had to feel the same way. This is what the case was about, Schleicher told us. And he was right. And the jury confirmed that he was right.
There’s no way to extrapolate this verdict to other cases, past, pending, and future. This case had everything a prosecutor needs: multiple video streams and an astonishing chorus of witnesses on the sidewalk outside the now-iconic Cup Foods—young and old, Black and white, a city paramedic and a bright, traumatized 9-year-old—armed with only their phones, trying to reason with Chauvin and the other cops. (Prosecutor Jerry Blackwell called them a “bouquet of humanity.”)
Overmatched defense counsel Eric Nelson tried to paint them as menacing, and failed miserably. In most of what we saw (maybe I missed something) that bouquet of humanity didn’t even move from the curb. They didn’t dare. They knew that if they stepped into the street, they could wind up under the knee of police.
Like George Floyd did.
I don’t believe in the “bad apple” theory of policing. Lately, it seems like the tree is rotten and bad apples either outnumber or outmaneuver the good. But to get that many Minneapolis police officers, including Chief Mederia Arrodando, to testify in detail about what Chauvin did wrong proves that if you get the right leadership, you’ll get at least some more good apples.
I know this doesn’t promise us better outcomes, either in conflicts with police or in the prosecution of those who kill. But I’m going to celebrate it. Let us all join the bouquet of humanity.