The story about former police officer Derek Chauvin putting his knee on George Floyd’s neck and killing him is one that pushed millions to take to the streets and demand justice. But it was always unclear how accountability might take shape—until we began to find out yesterday, as Chauvin was declared guilty of three charges and held responsible for Floyd’s death. Jon Collins of Minnesota Public Radio has been following the Chauvin trial since it began, so I spoke to him about how he understood the jury’s verdicts, and what comes next for everyone involved, on Wednesday’s episode of What Next. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: How notable is it that all three charges were guilty?
Jon Collins: I think it sends a strong message, because these charges were slightly different—the second-degree murder charge is different from the third-degree murder charge, and what’s required to convict someone of each of those is different. So it means the jurors found some substance to convict him on all three charges. And even though it’s going to go to appeal—because that’s what happens in our criminal justice system—this fact makes it more complicated for Chauvin to actually argue that these charges are baseless or that they should be overturned.
The defense continually talked about whether Chauvin was acting like a “reasonable officer” at the time Floyd was killed. His lawyer even instructed the jury not to look at this case from Floyd’s perspective, or even from the perspective of bystanders who saw him killed—instead, he said they should consider the perspective of a “reasonable police officer” and how he might act in the moment. This idea of a “reasonable officer standard” comes from the Supreme Court case Graham v. Connor.
Graham v. Connor is brought up so much by attorneys who are defending law enforcement officers because it’s been very effective in making sure that they’re not convicted. It’s a very high threshold—essentially, they will argue you can’t use 20/20 hindsight to judge the officer. And when they tell that to jurors, the jurors think, “Being a cop is really hard., and I wouldn’t know what I would do if I were put in this situation.” They have been historically more willing to give these police officers leeway when they’re on trial. The question of whether anything is changing the law itself hasn’t changed. But my question is—especially in the past couple of years, with all that’s happened—has something changed in the consciousness of the people who make up the jury pool that allows them to see this case law that hasn’t changed in a different way than they would have seen it five years ago or 10 years ago?
In its own way, the prosecution was also making an argument about what a reasonable officer might do, by bringing a bunch of policemen onto the stand to testify against Chauvin. Prosecutors seemed to be saying that Chauvin can’t be a reasonable officer if all these other reasonable officers think he messed up. Was this an approach to cut off the finger to save the hand—to sacrifice Chauvin to defend policing?
Yeah, I mean, we’re sitting in Minneapolis, which last year popularized this idea of defunding the police, whether that was actually what most people intended to say or not. The concept of defunding the police is popular with some activists, but it’s not popular in general. I think what the prosecution was trying to win over those people who are more skeptical of defunding and who might have been on the jury—they don’t know what the jurors’ politics are, necessarily—and make sure they didn’t associate prosecution of a police officer with this larger movement to abolish or defund police. Maybe they will win over some people who think police have been as a culture treated badly or treated as some sort of boogeyman—maybe they can win them over by saying: We’re saying there are good police. We’re saying this guy was the bad apple. Look at all these good police we brought on the stand that you can still respect and still feel like you can come over to our side and say that Chauvin’s guilty.
Let’s talk about what happens next. There are three other officers who were with Chauvin when he killed George Floyd and they’re going to be tried in August. How does this verdict affect the way that that trial will go?
If Chauvin had gotten off, then it would have made it much easier for the other three defendants to argue, How are you going to hold me accountable for aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter when you let the guy off who’s actually charged with murder and manslaughter? But the fact that he was convicted of all three charges makes it a more difficult situation for the other three defendants. I will say that I heard in the arguments, especially in the closing arguments by the prosecution, they were not just calling out Chauvin—they said “the officers” over and over. And they’ll be the same ones, for the most part, who will be prosecuting this trial in August. It seems like they already have a lot of the ammunition that they’re going to use against these three other officers.
Chauvin himself is going to be sentenced in about eight weeks. It looks like he would be getting 12 years in prison, but he could be getting up to 40.
The presumptive sentence is 12 years because in Minnesota, when someone is convicted of multiple charges for the same offense against the same person, they only get sentenced for the most harsh charge.
So those charges aren’t going to layer on top of one another. It’s not like one is 10 years, the other is 20 years, and then you get to 30 years.
No. And the presumptive sentence for both the top two charges is about 12 years, although the prosecution has asked the judge in this case to consider aggravating factors, five different ones. So the judge will need to decide how much he will take those into account, because he does have some flexibility in how he sentences Chauvin, but he needs, to explain his reasons for it, and they need to be based in the law. So that’s going to be the next step.
How did George Floyd’s family react when they got the news?
From what I saw, they were happy about this. They said they wanted to see Chauvin convicted. I think what the main thrust of a lot of what we heard from the family, from civil rights activists, from people in the community, is that, these three guilty verdicts were a powerful testament to the fact that it was possible for the criminal justice system to hold a white police officer accountable for killing a Black man—no one had much confidence that could have actually happened, because that has never happened in Minnesota before. But also, that this is just one case and now there need to be steps to make sure that this isn’t an isolated incident. It’s a broader look at the needed changes to the systems here in the state of Minnesota, which have led to some of the biggest racial disparities in the country across a range of issues.
I was struck by the fact that right after the verdict came down, the president called George Floyd’s family. You could hear the family and how emotional they were, but they clearly saw their job now is continuing to advocate to make policing safer for Black and brown people. This seemed like the first step to them, not the end.
I think about Philando Castile’s mother, Valerie Castile, who was in court every single day. She, believed system would function like she hoped it would, that it would hold the police officer who killed her son accountable. It didn’t, but she and her brother continued to get involved: She has participated in conferences of prosecutors talking about, here’s how we can prosecute these cases more effectively. Her brother was on the Minnesota POST board, which certifies police officers. These families want the legacy of their loved one to be something positive—they don’t want it to be those final moments on the concrete. They want it to be a systematic change that makes life better for all people.
Slate is the place that gave me the freedom to create What Next alongside a small team of dedicated producers. Over the years, we’ve developed a format that didn’t just give context to the news—but, during the coronavirus pandemic, became a way for us to connect with our listeners, and for our listeners to hear from one another. Your Slate Plus support means we’ve been able to grow our team from three people to six—more, if you count What Next: TBD with the amazing Lizzie O’Leary. Thank you so much for your support. —Mary Harris, What Next host