The jury in the murder trial of Derek Chauvin found the former Minneapolis police officer guilty on Tuesday in the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, in a decision US President Joe Biden said he hoped would become a “moment of significant change”.
The 45-year-old Chauvin, who was filmed on May 25 last year with his knee on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds, was found guilty on all three counts: second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
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After a three-week trial, it took the 12-person jury, consisting of six white and six Black or multiracial men and women, 10 hours to reach their verdict.
Chauvin’s bail was immediately revoked and he was escorted out of court in handcuffs. He will face sentencing in eight weeks and could be sent to prison for decades.
Crowds gathered in Minneapolis cheered as the guilty verdict was read, shouting “Say his name! George Floyd!” and “Guilty on all three!”
“Justice for Black America is justice for all of America,” the Floyd family’s lawyer Benjamin Crump said in a statement, the Reuters news agency reported.
“This case is a turning point in American history for accountability of law enforcement and sends a clear message we hope is heard clearly in every city and every state.”
Prosecution was convincing
Prosecutor Steve Schleicher argued that Chauvin, who is white, used excessive force while detaining the 46-year-old Floyd after arresting him for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes.
The prosecution was able to convince the jury that Chauvin, who pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck as he lay handcuffed on the ground by the police patrol car, was responsible for Floyd’s death on May 25 last year.
The video, filmed by a teenage girl and shared around the world, was played in court dozens of times.
“Random members of the community, all converged by fate at one single moment in time to witness something, to witness nine minutes and 29 seconds of shocking abuse of authority, to watch a man die,” Schleicher said in his closing arguments on Monday.
Chauvin’s “use of force was unreasonable. It was excessive. It was grossly disproportionate,” he stressed.
“This wasn’t policing. This was murder.”
The prosecution called 38 witnesses during 11 days of testimony.
“This result is not surprising at all. As the trial went forward, it seemed that every witness was putting a further nail in the coffin of the defendant,” Mike Padden, a Minneapolis lawyer, told Al Jazeera after the verdict was read.
“The defence never had any viable defences. You are seeing the magic of video. Video doesn’t lie.”
Chauvin’s defence lawyer, Eric Nelson, failed to sway the jury with his argument that there were other underlying conditions – specifically, Floyd’s drug use and pre-existing health issues – that resulted in his death.
Nelson also argued that Chauvin acted “as any reasonable police officer would”.
“Throughout the course of this trial, the state has focused your attention on nine minutes and 29 seconds. The proper analysis is to take those nine minutes and 29 seconds, and put it into the context of the totality of the circumstances that a reasonable police officer would know,” Nelson said during his closing arguments.
“In this case, the totality of the circumstances that were known to a reasonable police officer in the precise moment the force was used demonstrates that this was an authorised use of force, as unattractive as it may be. And this is reasonable doubt.”
It is expected that Chauvin will appeal the verdict and, following closing arguments on Monday, Judge Peter Cahill suggested he may have a case, thanks to public comments from Democratic Representative Maxine Waters, who told a crowd of protesters “we’ve got to get more confrontational” if Chauvin was found not guilty.
Nelson had asked for a mistrial, arguing Waters’ comments could have influenced the jury.
Cahill rejected that request but suggested that Waters “may have given you something on appeal that may result in this whole trial being overturned”. He called her comments “abhorrent” and “disrespectful to the rule of law and to the judicial branch”.
Braced for protests, but reaction joyous
Tensions ran high in cities around the US, no more so than in Minneapolis, which also saw the killing of another Black man at the hands of police in nearby Brooklyn Center on April 11.
After 20-year-old Daunte Wright was shot and killed by a police officer who claims to have mistaken her gun for a Taser, protesters hit the streets demanding justice and calling for police reforms. They were joined in their calls by President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and other Democratic politicians, who are urging the US Senate to pass a police reform bill named after Floyd that has already passed the House.
It was Floyd’s death last May in Minneapolis that set off protests for racial justice in the US and around the world that at times turned violent on the part of the protesters and, in some cases, on the part of law enforcement.
In Minneapolis, businesses boarded up their windows and some 3,000 National Guard troops were called in to help keep the peace, as they were in other large cities such as Washington, DC.
The immediate reaction was not of anger, however, but of mostly joy and relief.
“This feels different for our community, justice feels new and long overdue,” tweeted US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who represents a district that includes Minneapolis.
This feels different for our community, justice feels new and long overdue.
Rejoice, my beloved community. Grateful to @AGEllison, jurors, and everyone who made this possible.
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) April 20, 2021
Outside the court, Autumn, who declined to give her last name, told Al Jazeera that she did not think guilty on all counts was possible.
“I’ve been out here for many years. I was out here for Philando Castile. And we did not see justice served. So years later, fast forward, I had this sinking feeling that I was gonna see the same results. So now that I’m here and seeing a guilty charge on all counts, I am so excited but I feel hesitant,” she said.
Castile, a Black man, was fatally shot during a traffic stop in Minneapolis-St Paul in 2016.
The Black Lives Matter movement tweeted that while it hopes the news helps Floyd’s family “rest a little easier,” it said, “This isn’t proof the system works. It’s proof of how broken it is. Because it took us this long, and this much attention.
“Until we have a world where our communities can thrive free from fear, there will be no justice.”
This isn’t proof the system works. It’s proof of how broken it is. Because it took us this long, and this much attention. Until we have a world where our communities can thrive free from fear, there will be no justice.
— Black Lives Matter (@Blklivesmatter) April 20, 2021
Biden and Harris watched the verdict with staff at the White House. Following the announcement, they spoke to Minnesota Governor Tim Walz and, later, Floyd’s family.
“Today, we feel a sigh of relief, but it can not take away the pain,” Harris said during an address to the nation from the White House. “A measure of justice is not the same as equal justice.”
“America has a long history of systemic racism,” she continued. “Black Americans and Black men, in particular, had been treated throughout the course of our history as less than human.”
Biden followed Harris and said, “It was a murder in full light of day and it ripped the blinders off for the whole world to see the systemic racism the vice president just referred to, the systemic racism that’s a stain on our nation’s soul. The knee on the neck of justice for Black Americans.”
“This can be a giant step forward on the march toward justice in America,” he added. “This can be a moment of significant change.”
With reporting by Creede Newton in Minneapolis.