One of the first things I learned as a trial lawyer is the tried-and-true saying that if the facts are against you, argue the law. And if the law is against you, throw anything up on the wall and hope it sticks. As I watch the Derek Chauvin trial and listen incredulously to the defense team's efforts to twist and distort reality, it is clear to me that they believe neither the law nor the facts are on their side. Instead, Chauvin’s defense team has chosen to ruthlessly smear George Floyd’s character, filling the courtroom with irrelevant facts and history in a desperate attempt to convince jurors that Floyd’s own behavior and failing health caused his death.
Chauvin’s defense lawyers would like jurors to disbelieve their own eyes and ignore the excruciating, revolting video that shows former officer Derek Chauvin pressing his knee against George Floyd’s neck for an agonizing nine minutes and 29 seconds.
Instead, Chauvin’s attorneys would like jurors to view Floyd as a fentanyl addict who died because of drugs in his system, or that his hypertension and enlarged heart caused him to die whereas a normal, healthy person would have survived the prolonged neck restraint and compression.
I believe the prosecution handled these bogus arguments in exactly the right way, calling experts such as Dr. Martin Tobin, a renowned pulmonologist and critical care physician who encouraged jurors to place their fingers against their own necks as he explained human anatomy, and said with certainty that George Floyd’s behavior did not correspond with that of a person who was overdosing. As prosecution witness Dr. Bill Smock put it, “That is not a fentanyl overdose. That is somebody begging to breathe.”
Even Hennepin County chief medical examiner Dr. Andrew Baker squarely blamed Chauvin for George Floyd’s death, saying that “the way police held him down and compressed his neck was just more than he [Floyd] could take, given the condition of his heart.”
What I find ironic about the defense’s strategy of blaming Floyd for his own death is that it comes on the heels of recent findings by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which call racism a “serious threat” to public health, singling out racism as having a profound and negative impact on communities of color and contributing to disproportionate mortality rates among people of color. These findings are consistent with studies by researchers at the University of Michigan and UCLA which show that anti-Black bias in the U.S. has resulted in Black men being disproportionately stopped, arrested, incarcerated, jailed, shot, and killed by police. These studies both found that the effect of these encounters is that black men are marginalized in U.S. society, which ultimately harms their health.
When I think of George Floyd, I think of a man who is the exact type of victim of systemic racism that the CDC is talking about. From the evidence produced at trial, sadly Mr. Floyd’s health suffered because of the racist systems identified by the CDC and his life was literally stamped out because of a racist criminal justice system that uses disproportionate force against Black people.
And in a morbid twist of irony, the defense team blames Mr. Floyd’s death on his enlarged heart and poor health. It’s a perfect, inescapable vicious loop.
If there are any positives from the trial so far, it’s that we have finally seen long overdue cracks in the blue wall of silence. Chief Medaria Arradondo of the Minneapolis Police Department said Mr. Chauvin “absolutely” violated the department’s policies during the arrest, a rare rebuke of a police officer by an acting chief. This was echoed by multiple Minneapolis police officers including Lt. Richard Zimmerman, the most senior member of the Minneapolis police who also denounced Chauvin’s actions.
Sgt. Jody Stiger, who works with the Los Angeles Police Department Inspector General’s Office, testified that officer Chauvin used “deadly force” when he should have used none.
Police officers taking the stand and testifying truthfully against one of their own is a big step forward, but I can’t help but think this heroic display of honesty would never have happened without the incriminating video.
The day there are no civilian witnesses, or cellphone or dashcam video and police officer step forward and tell the truth, that will be when we know we’ve made some real progress.
For now, in a country where a Black child cannot grow and thrive into adulthood without experiencing the endemic effects of racism on the very bodies people like Derek Chauvin want to dominate and destroy – maybe we can agree that blaming the impacts on the victims themselves is an argument we all refuse to accept.
Areva Martin is an award-winning best-selling author, attorney and advocate, and founder of Special Needs Network. Martin currently provides daily trial coverage on CNN and Headline News as a legal analyst and civil rights attorney.