Following the death of George Floyd, yet another unarmed African-American man killed by police officers in the United States, protests and demonstrations have erupted across the country. The nature of the incident is not new, nor is the response unprecedented, and it is that all-too-frequent cycle of racism and reaction that attests to the progress yet to be made in America.
The US is a state founded on contradictions, and it follows course that in such a state justice is often diluted, misdirected, or disregarded altogether. It is a country whose Constitution boldly proclaims the virtue of equality before the law, while its history attests to the emptiness of this claim. It is a country where many of the same proud citizens who firmly believe that justice is the bedrock upon which the nation stands are incensed when black athletes take the knee to demand it. However, it is not the grandiose political or sporting arenas where America’s disparities are laid bare most glaringly, but in courtrooms across the country.
The courtroom provides a stage upon which the racial inequities that underpin American society are exposed, played out, and promptly ignored. Now, with the indictment of Derek Chauvin – the Minneapolis police officer who killed Floyd – on recently updated charges of second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, attention will once again turn to the courthouse. Very rarely, however, have indictments resulted in convictions; indicative of the myriad of cracks in the American justice system through which racism seeps.
In March 1992, Rodney King, a construction worker pulled over for a minor traffic infringement, was thrown to the ground by four Los Angeles police officers and beaten with batons for as long as fifteen minutes. Much of the attack was witnessed and filmed by a local resident, unbeknownst to the police. After fury erupted at yet another instance of police brutality, the four officers were indicted on charges of assault with a deadly weapon and use of excessive force. The defence, however, launched a motion for a change of venue, an incredibly rare legal process where the location of the trial is moved because the court deems that a jury selected from the area where the crime was committed cannot deliver an impartial verdict. The motion was granted, and the trial moved from the racially diverse city of LA to the Simi Valley, a city in Ventura Country with an 88 per cent white population. While the potential influence of media coverage on jurors was formally listed as the basis for the venue change, lawyers on both sides agreed that the primary motivation for the move was racial demographics. Black jurors could not be trusted to assess a case of police brutality objectively. A jury picked from an overwhelmingly white area with a sizable police community, however, was deemed perfectly capable of doing so.
Nearly seven years later, in February 1999, Amadou Diallo, a 23-year-old Ethiopian man living in the Bronx, New York, was killed when fired upon 41 times by plain-clothed police officers who claimed to mistake his wallet for a gun. Standing in the vestibule of his own apartment building, he was struck by 19 bullets. Multiple witnesses stated that the officers did not announce themselves as members of the police department before opening fire. Following the indictment of the officers on charges of second-degree murder and reckless endangerment, a change-of-venue motion was granted which saw the trial moved away from New York City to the predominantly white city of Albany in New York. The motion also resulted in the removal of Patricia Williams, an African-American woman set to judge the trial in the Bronx. Albany had no black judges and the jury, selected from a “more favourable” pool, was once again majority white. In both cases, against seemingly unmistakable facts, all officers were acquitted.
The decisions to change venues in search of level-headed jurors clearly came up short. Implicit in the venue changes was the institutionalised belief that black jurors could not be trusted to detach emotion from adjudication in such cases. Their white suburban countrymen, however, were deemed emotionally distant enough from the cases to remain impartial. These jurors, supposedly unswayed by personal bias, decided that nine minutes of videotaped brutality and 41 bullets simply did not demonstrate enough force to be deemed excessive.
In both cases, the acquittals rested entirely upon the interpretation of the actions of King and Diallo as threatening. However, one man was on the ground, the other on his own doorstep armed only with his keys and wallet. The jurors’ verdicts reflected the same inherent distrust of black citizens that underlie police killings to begin with. Perhaps the most harmful and enduring stereotypes of African-Americans are centred on themes of danger and unreliability, whether in the vehemently racist 19th and 20th Century caricatures of the “lazy black man”, or the dog-whistle politics of Republican administrations throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. In fact, these stereotypes are clearly discernible in these cases. Police officers killed and brutalised unarmed men in wholly unthreatening situations, justifying these actions with racially predicated notions of danger. The courts then excused and legitimised both the racist preconceptions and the violent actions borne out of them by dismissing local, black jurors as unreliable and replacing them with white suburban ones. The newly chosen white jurors sympathised with the defendants’ fears and, with their verdicts, sanctioned the brutality as legally appropriate.
While the officers who senselessly beat Rodney King did not do so out of fear, the fact that the jury was receptive to such claims is telling. It demonstrates the ubiquity of prejudice and consequent difficulties in finding any jurors that can be completely impartial in racially charged cases. Most crucially, it is reflective of the enabling role played by the courts in the seemingly never-ending incidents of police brutality.
Police officers prone to acts of violence are undoubtedly emboldened by the low conviction rate. Between 2013 and 2019, just 0.3 per cent of the 7,666 instances in which police officers killed someone resulted in a conviction. Of those killed, 24 per cent were black, despite constituting just 13 per cent of the population. An absence of accountability breeds a lack of caution; police officers harbouring racist attitudes are able to act violently because there is little to dissuade them from doing so.
However, an increase in convictions and sentences could serve as a barrier between racist perceptions and the violent acts they fuel. If a white police officer has a heightened perception of threat when encountering a black man for no other reason than that he is black, or if he is tempted to use his position of power to inflict injury, the knowledge that he will likely pay for any wrongdoing in a prison cell may urge him to think twice. No doubt, many officers will persist with whatever violent action they had initially planned after a brief second thought. Increasing the conviction rate alone will not solve a problem that can only be comprehensively addressed by a sweeping reform of institutions and the cultures that exist within them, and deep-rooted, long-term change in social attitudes. But it is a start and a long overdue one.
On Monday 25 May 2020, Chauvin forced his knee into George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes. For a third of that time, Floyd was unresponsive. Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for three minutes after his colleague had checked for a pulse and failed to find one. This was all caught on camera. Logic tells us that a guilty verdict is a foregone conclusion; the lessons of the past say otherwise. Following the King verdict, a legal professor lamented the dismissal of “ocular proof” that sent a message to African-Americans across the nation that they could not “trust [their] own lying eyes”. Just like in the King case, the video of Floyd appears to many to provide proof in its most brutal and unadulterated form. An acquittal in this case would be similarly bold, if unsurprising.
Given the incredibly high profile of the case, the defence may argue for a change of venue to maintain partiality. This will allow them to seek a location in which a jury may be more conducive to the picture they are seeking to paint, and Minnesota is not short of white majority areas. While it is not inevitable that a majority white jury will perpetuate racist sentiments, in the two previous cases of this kind, the decision to move the trial to an area with a largely white jury did not result in evidence prevailing over emotion as intended. In cases where there is a palpable racial undercurrent, venue changes have not increased impartiality but simply swayed it in the opposite direction.
Media and technology have of course developed in leaps and bounds since the 1990s and widespread coverage means that high-profile cases are often just as closely followed outside the place of occurrence. This may weaken the basis of any motion to change venue. Rooting out such manipulations of the justice system which further stack the odds in favour of white defendants is crucial to bolstering the conviction rate, deterring such violent actions, and reducing future loss of life.
Disregard for black life by law enforcement officers is directly enabled by a disregard for black life in law. As loud chants of “Black Lives Matter” echo across the US, the minuscule conviction rate of officers accused of taking these lives exposes just as loudly that the court believes they do not.
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