George Floyd’s death sparked global riots against police brutality and racial injustice. Now the police officer who knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes while he was handcuffed and on the ground has been found guilty.
It’s an important verdict for the world, but in particular for the American justice system which has a history, much like Australia’s, of rarely holding police officers accountable.
Taking note of the anger surrounding George Floyd’s death and fearing a surge of uprisings during the trial, Minneapolis Police have been preparing security and potential emergency responses for months, and even went so far as to enclose the courthouse with barbed wire fencing. But there was little other than cheering when the news of the verdict reached the streets earlier this week.
Derek Chauvin was found guilty by a 12-member jury of second-and third-degree murder, as well as second-degree manslaughter. The former Minneapolis police officer is behind bars, his bail revoked, and will be sentenced in about eight weeks time. He faces up to 75 years in jail.
In the US, second-degree murder carries a maximum sentence of 40 years. Third-degree murder carries a maximum sentence of 25 years. Second-degree manslaughter is punishable by up to 10 years.
Derek Chauvin’s criminal defence team claimed that there may have been underlying medical issues related to George Floyd’s drug use and heart condition which contributed to his death. But the jury’s verdict dismisses this argument, and places the blame for George Floyd’s death firmly on the police officer who kneeled on his neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds while he pleaded 27 times for breath.
Despite the fact that footage, taken by a brave kid with a smartphone, was seen by millions of people …. despite the fact that the incident sparked civil rights protests and rallies in several countries, including Australia and made it clear that the social appetite for eradicating racial injustice and police brutality is palpable… And even despite the fact that Derek Chauvin was prepared to plead guilty to third degree murder (a deal that was rejected by the U.S. Attorney General at the time, because he worried it could be perceived as too lenient) this was never going to be an easy case for prosecutors, particularly as the world watched on.
But after a three week trial which included testimony from almost a dozen police officers, including the police chief himself, that Derek Chauvin used force that was both excessive and unnecessary, it’s possible to say that George Floyd’s death was not in vain.
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act
The verdict has been welcomed by Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison who said it is “a first step towards justice”. US President Joe Biden also welcomed the verdict, calling it an “important step for reform”, even though The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act has still not passed the Senate, where it needs 60 votes to get through.
The bill was introduced in the weeks following George Floyd’s death and aims to establish a national standard to operate police departments, requires law enforcement to collect data on police encounters, and puts a federal ban on chokeholds.
Even in spite of this, many believe this is a significant moment for change in the US. Only a small handful of police officers have been convicted of murder for police shootings since 2005, although Mapping Police Violence data shows that over the past five years, police have killed an average of three people per day.
A notable exception in the past couple of years has been Mohamed Noor, the police officer who shot and killed Australian woman Justine Damond Ruszczyk and was found guilty of third-degree murder. Her family subsequently sued the City of Minneapolis and was awarded $US20 million (about $AUD28 million), in a civil settlement.
Of course, eradicating systemic racism in the justice system will take much more than an increase in convictions, but they do set a new standard for punishing Police misconduct, and that is an important step forward. One Australia should take note of.
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