America on trial in police murder case

In memoriam : Witnesses recalled George Floyd’s last moments before his arrest and death. © Getty

Will it be a turning point for America? The trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd has prompted discussion about whether the US can start to heal its racial divisions.

The cameras were not allowed to film the witness. Darnella Frazier was under 18, so her face could not be shown, but the young woman’s voice was heard around the world.

“I heard George Floyd saying I can’t breathe, please get off of me. I can’t breathe. He cried for his mom. He was in pain. It seemed like he knew it was over for him. He was terrified. He was suffering.”

Darnella’s testimony was among the most powerful so far in the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, now entering its fourth day at Hennepin County courthouse in Minneapolis, USA.

Floyd died after being restrained by Chauvin, who kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes. The video of Floyd pinned and gasping for air set off a wave of global protests, galvanising support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Some believe that if Chauvin is convicted, it will mark a turning point for racial justice in the US.

For centuries, trials have been one of history’s weathervanes, showing which direction society is heading. Prosecutions of political radicals in England helped stoke its civil war in the 1640s, while the Stalinist show trials in 1936 marked another nail in the coffin of the Russian revolutionary dream.

The first-ever trial was a fictional one. In the ancient Greek play, Eumenides, the goddess Athena summons a 12-person jury to try a prince in an act said to have established the legal system.

The course of Greek justice, however, did not always run smooth. One famous bump came when the Athenian philosopher Socrates was found guilty of corrupting the youth and ordered to commit suicide.

For his disciple, Plato, Socrates was punished for speaking the truth. This was the position 16th-Century astronomer Galileo Galilei found himself in when he was tried by the Inquisition. His crime? Claiming that the earth revolved around the sun.

In other cases, trials – such as those endured by the French Jewish soldier Richard Dreyfus, who was falsely accused of treason in 1894 – have captured the public imagination by providing a lightning rod for public prejudices such as antisemitism.

In the US, the history of racism – and the struggle against it – has been punctuated by many important trials, from that of John Brown, to Ossian Sweet, to Afeni Shakur.

One of the most tragic of these trials followed the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a Black teenager. His White killers were found not guilty despite overwhelming evidence.

Outrage about the verdict helped spur the Civil Rights Movement, which secured greater legal equality for Black Americans.

Floyd’s death is seen by some as a sign of how far America still has to go to reach real equality.

Speaking as the trial began, veteran civil rights campaigner Al Sharpton told the press: “Chauvin is in the courtroom, but America is on trial.”

Will the George Floyd trial be a turning point for America?

Rough justice

Yes, say some. The trial will show Americans that no one is above the law – not even the police. Regardless of the verdict, the death of George Floyd has changed the way many people see policing in the US. The attorney general of Minnesota is personally prosecuting the case, showing that American politicians believe they cannot allow the status quo to continue.

No, say others. People believed the US would change after the death of Trayvon Martin in 2013, and again after a police officer killed Michael Brown in 2014. The same argument was made after the murder of Laquan Macdonald when the officer involved was convicted. Americans remain starkly divided on how police should behave, and those divisions will prevent necessary reforms. Convicting Chauvin will not stop history repeating itself.

You Decide

  1. Would you rather be tried by a judge or a jury of your classmates?
  2. In some places, judges use a computer algorithm to help set prison sentences for criminals. Do you think this is a good way of eliminating bias from courts?

Activities

  1. Read about the trials of Socrates and Galileo mentioned in the list in the links. Write a dramatic scene where they argue about whose trial was more unfair.
  2. Write a speech from the perspective of a juror who acquitted someone they knew to be guilty.

Some People Say...

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Martin Luther King Jr (1929 – 68), American minister and civil rights leader

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is widely agreed that trial by jury is uncommon, even in countries that pride themselves on it. Only 2% of American federal prosecutions result in a jury trial, while 12% of UK charges do. In 1998, the US figure was 7%. The decline in trials is thought to be a result of defendants pleading guilty in advance, fearing harsher sentences if their case proceeded to trial. Some have argued that the declining number of trials is proof of a legal system that fails to protect people’s rights.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is about which is better: the adversarial system of trials, used in Britain and the US, or the inquisitorial system, more common in other countries. In the inquisitorial system, the judge is tasked with discovering the facts of the case and choosing witnesses to hear from, whereas in the adversarial system, the defence and prosecution present their arguments and a judge or jury merely decides which is more convincing.

Word Watch

Testimony
A statement by a witness.
Former
Chauvin was fired by the Minneapolis police department along with the three other officers who were involved in Floyd’s arrest.
Galvanising
Shocking or surprising an individual or group into taking action.
Black Lives Matter
The phrase “Black lives matter” was first used following the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin, a teenage boy.
Weathervanes
A device used to show which way the wind is blowing. In Europe, these often take the form of a metal rooster, or weathercock.
Stalinist show trials
Between 1936 and 1938, the Russian communist dictator Joseph Stalin had political opponents tortured until they confessed to crimes in public trials.
Inquisition
The Catholic court that investigated religious crimes, beginning in the 12th Century.
John Brown
A White man who led an armed group in attacks on slave owners before the US civil war. He was arrested and sentenced to death in Virginia in 1859.
Ossian Sweet
He was accussed of murdering a White man after a racist mob attacked his house in 1925. He pleaded self-defence, and the prosecution failed to secure a conviction.
Afeni Shakur
A member of the activist group, the Black Panthers. She was charged with conspiracy to bomb a police station in 1970. It later emerged that the plan was hatched by an undercover FBI agent, resulting in Afeni’s acquittal.
Attorney general
The leading legal officer who represents the Crown or a state in legal proceedings and gives legal advice to the government.

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