A trial, a new bill and the continuing fight for justice for George Floyd

An uprise of Black Lives Matter protests followed the death of George Floyd in May 2020.

Loretta Mcgraw

The inner workings of the trial of Derek Chauvin, ex-Minneapolis police officer, began March 8 as family, community members, individuals worldwide and Black Lives Matter activists followed, awaiting justice for the deceased George Floyd.

Floyd was forcibly detained and killed on May 25, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Chauvin is seen in video footage pinning Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 15 seconds and continuing this stance on his neck even after Floyd was heard stating “I can’t breath” and lost consciousness. This graphic footage can be viewed in The New York Times. On the day following the occurrence, all four officers involved were fired from the force.

Chauvin is currently being charged with second-degree murder, second-degree manslaughter and a third-degree murder charge, which carries up to a 25-year sentence. If he is found guilty of second-degree murder he could face up to 40 years, as well as up to 10 years for the second-degree manslaughter charge, according to Minnesota law. However, it is unlikely Chauvin will face the maximum penalty and sources claim he is more apt to face 12.5 years in total if convicted of this first-time offense.

The H.R. 1280: George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021 was introduced and passed through the House on March 3. This legislation is an attempt to hold law enforcement accountable for misconduct in court, improve transparency through data collection and reform police training and policies. It will still need to be reviewed by the Senate in order to be put into policy. 

“Everyone must be treated with dignity and respect. This is not the way we are trained to respond. As a police leader, I denounce what took place and as a profession, we must do better. I extend my condolences to the Floyd family. All lives are precious. This MUST end! #GeorgeFloyd,” Michael Newton, Iowa State safety police officer, said in a tweet May 27.

Newton publicly condemns the actions of Chauvin and lets it be known he will hold his staffers accountable and to higher standards. He currently has a full-time mental health advocate, an officer dedicated to addressing and assisting the homeless on hand as well as with implicit bias training, tactical training, racial intelligence training and the field training program from the moment officers enter the program to teach officers to be actively involved, assist each other and treat people with dignity and respect from day one. Newton also expressed that he is trying to find new ways to train and police in the way the community wants them too.

Racial discrimination by corrupt authority figures is nothing new in the United States, but as taxpayers and citizens who have the right to practice their freedom of speech, we can demand justice and change. The public outcry of the Black Lives Matter movement, regardless of the pandemic, solidifies that there is no room for negligence any longer. With public outcry comes change. Law enforcement agencies around the country have been coming together since the passing of Floyd to incorporate more sensitivity training and many states have passed their very own legislation similar to that of the federal H.R. 1280 bill currently under review. 

Iowa currently has legislation to restore felon voting rights since the mass majority of incarcerated individuals are people of color, in addition to legislation that passed unanimously that bans most police chokeholds and addresses police officer misconduct.

“I think one of the things people need to realize and recognize is that what one law enforcement officer does in one part of the country affects the entire country and unfortunately we have continued to see these events [aren’t isolated to] Minneapolis,” Newton said. “They happen in different communities across the country and so as a whole we should be involved, engaged, we should be paying attention to what is happening because eventually, it impacts the work we do, even here in Ames, Iowa.

“If there’s something that we need to change about the way we respond then we should do that, we shouldn’t wait for an incident to happen, let’s change it today so that we can avoid things like this ever happening again in the future.” 

What happened to Floyd raises the question of what’s changed in the near 30 years since Rodney King. On March 3, 1991, King was taken into custody and beaten by four Los Angeles Police Department officers. The officers who had been charged with using excessive force were acquitted of the charge but later convicted of violating King’s civil rights in a federal court trial. While King was fortunate to survive his first-hand encounter with police brutality, many people have been wondering why more has not been done to protect the lives of all people when interacting with police, but especially people of color.

Jassma’Ray Johnson, Black Student Alliance co-director and a junior in psychology and communications with a minor in African American studies, is a vocal advocate for the lives of people of color and a supporter of the abolition of the current system of policing because of incidents like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and more. Johnson believes wholeheartedly that there is no way to stop a system taught to kill people of color without the deconstruction of it.

“As a society, we have to continue to call out injustices,” Johnson said. “We have to continue to create different services and utilize different methods that replace the scenes that police officers normally arrive at. We have to continue to use our voices and hold people accountable. Posting, sharing, protesting, signing petitions and saying their names. Police violence is police violence. Even when it is right in front of our faces, this system finds a way to manipulate the truth of the matter.”

Michael Levine is an attorney at law currently practicing and co-directing the Student Legal Services at Iowa State University, where he has been an employee for more than 30 years and was able to provide general legal insight into the inner workings of the now most famous police brutality trial in the history of the United States.

“We all saw the eight minutes and 46 seconds that were just alarming and distressing to no end,” Levine said. “It makes [the trial] so unusual that you kind of ask yourself ‘how could there not be a guilty verdict of some kind?’ and if it’s [found to be] a lesser offense than the murder charges ‘how could that happen?’ well it can happen, it does happen and it’s the judicial system at work.”

Levine explained that there are many components that go into play when deciding the legal outcome of a trial, including but not limited to evidence, jury instructions and how the case is presented in the courtroom, which all sculpt into the evidence the jury has to look at. Trials are fraught with uncertainty and it can be difficult to understand how a jury reaches a different result than what some expect, but at other times the outcome can be pleasing to the parties most greatly affected, as many hope will be the case for Floyd’s family and supporters.

Juror selections are currently being undergone by the Hennepin County District Court following a $27 million civil settlement by the city of Minneapolis for the family of George Floyd on March 12. The prosecution and defense are set to start opening statements on March 29. Chauvin’s trial will be broadcast on Court TV and USA Today will be livestreaming the court proceedings.