The guilty verdicts in the Chauvin trial are extraordinary, if unsurprising, because past incidents of police lethal use of force against unarmed civilians, particularly Black civilians, have generally not resulted in criminal convictions.
In many cases, the prosecuting office has been reluctant or halfhearted in pursuing the case. Prosecutors and police officers work together daily; that can make prosecutors sympathetic to the work of law enforcement. In the Chauvin case, the attorney general’s office invested an overwhelming amount of resources in preparing for and conducting the trial, bringing in two outside lawyers, including a prominent civil rights attorney, to assist its many state prosecutors.
Usually, too, a police officer defendant can count on the support of other police officers to testify on his behalf and explain why his or her actions were justified. Not in this case. Every police officer witness testified for the prosecution against Chauvin.
Finally, convictions after police killings are rare because, evidence shows, jurors are historically reluctant to substitute their own judgment for the split-second decisions made by trained officers when their lives may be on the line. Despite the past year’s protests decrying police violence, U.S. support for law enforcement remains very high: A recent poll showed that only 18% of Americans support the “defund the police” movement.
But Chauvin had no feasible argument that he feared for his life or made an instinctive response to a threat. George Floyd did nothing to justify the defendant’s brutal actions, and the overwhelming evidence presented by the prosecutors convinced 12 jurors of that fact.