Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

April 19, 2021

“We may be trying to return a guilty man to the community. No one can really know. But we have reasonable doubt, and this is a safeguard that has enormous value in our system.”

The phrase, ‘it’s better to let ten guilty men go free, than put one innocent man behind bars’, is not some empty platitude.  It’s a fundamental principal, one we’ve built into our legal system.  First, by requiring unanimous verdicts in criminal cases and, most importantly, by requiring that guilt be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.  At times, with specific cases, we may find this frustrating.  But overall, this cautious approach protects the liberties of every individual, while strengthening our society as a whole.  Indeed, the principle resonates so strongly as to be frequently featured in our literature and cinema, most notably in To Kill A Mockingbird and Twelve Angry Men.

“The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box.”

Closing arguments are being presented today in the trial of Derek Chauvin, accused of criminal responsibility for the death of George Floyd. A verdict may already have been returned by the time you read this.  Under our system, the jury, as ‘finders of fact’, are charged with setting aside all preformed opinions, all prejudices and biases, to decide on the merits of the case based only on evidence presented in court.  Regarding this, the most publicized and cataclysmic incident in memory, that may prove hard for some of the jurors.   No one who viewed that initial video clip of Floyd on the pavement (and all of those empaneled had seen it) was not emotionally troubled.  Nor could anyone have missed the Summer of protests and rioting it sparked.  The acrimonious debate over alleged police brutality and ‘systemic racism’ dividing our nation surely draws its fault line through this jury box, too.

Still, over the past two weeks, the jury has been presented with a large amount of evidence — eyewitnesses, expert opinion, training manuals, toxicology reports, extended body camera footage of the incident from start to finish and from various angles — that most of the public is unaware of.  Some objective legal observers (if anyone can be fully objective in this case) found the state presented a rather weak, scattershot case, while Chauvin’s defense attorney, Eric Nelson, performed exceptionally well, most notably in eliciting statements favorable to the defense from some of the state’s own witnesses.  

The prosecution’s case relied primarily on reviving in the jury the emotional response to that viral video of Chauvin leaning atop Floyd, finding excuses to play segments over and over and over, while calling witnesses to share how they felt about it.  Expert witnesses were called who attested variously that Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck been a “blood choke” to a single carotid artery, then, that Chauvin’s knee — actually on Floyd’s back — had caused “positional asphyxia”, then shifting yet again to restraining Floyd face down had caused “compression asphyxia.”  The state also called several witnesses to testify that Chauvin acted criminally outside of police regulations, for if his actions were lawful, all the rest is moot.

The state also encountered procedural embarrassments. One of its first witnesses’ belligerence toward Nelson earned her a warning from the judge, during which she became sassy toward the judge, earning her a very stern warning.  (The jury was sent off before this scolding, but it could surmise something was up when court was adjourned early, with that witness returning the next morning to answer a single question.)  Nearly all of the state’s frequent objections were overruled.  One prosecutor earned a sidebar for badgering a defense witness on cross, returning noticeably chastised.  Then, just as the main cases were wrapping up, the state, by attempting to introduce evidence Judge Cahill had expressly forbidden, came within seconds of triggering a mistrial.  Throughout the trial, the state, boasting three main prosecutors, a bevy of assistants, plus the entire resources of Minnesota, swamped Nelson and his lone aid with tens of thousands of pieces of evidence, dropped just days or sometimes hours before introducing them in court.  While the jury was not privy to all of these elements, and may not appreciate their significance, it surely didn’t help.

“Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I’d have the facts.”

In contrast, Defense counsel Nelson’s performance, barring a couple of stumbles, was outstanding.

As an antipode, and likely intentional antidote, to the emotionally charged prosecution, Nelson remained calm throughout, and courteous to state witnesses, even the sassy one. Only on cross with one expert could noticeable signs of disdain been seen in Nelson’s face and heard in his voice.  But to be fair, this witness was pretty much an arrogant prick.

From his opening statement onward, Nelson laid out the foundation of reasonable doubt, building upon it brick by brick.  Establishing the lawfulness of Chauvin’s actions in the minds of the jurors may have been the hardest; numerous witnesses testified both that it was and that it wasn’t, allowing any given juror to hear what they want.  Nelson also argued that the crowd, growing larger and more openly hostile and threatening over time, both distracted the officers’ attention away from Floyd’s deteriorating physical condition, and necessitated restraining him for longer than anticipated.  This was supported in part by the fact that the EMTs, after belatedly arriving, considered the scene too dangerous to render aid on the spot, instead executing a “load and scoot” then driving several blocks away before attending to Floyd.

Far more compelling was the argument that what killed George Floyd was not a knee to the neck, but Floyd’s own choices that day, coupled with his extremely poor health. As attested by tangible evidence and testimony, Floyd:

  • Had ingested fentanyl prior to his arrest;
  • To prevent them being found by the police, swallowed pills containing more fentanyl and meth;
  • Physically and forcefully resisted arrest for about ten minutes;
  • Complained of being unable to breath long before being restrained on the ground;
  • Asked to be laid on the ground instead of loaded into the police cruiser;
  • Exhibited signs of “excited delirium” — violent, random physical movements, mental incoherence and delusions — which, per police training, requires restraining the subject to prevent harm to himself or others.

The autopsy revealed that Floyd suffered, inter alia, from:

  • Severe hypertension;
  • A grossly enlarged and weakened heart;
  • Of his four main arteries to the brain, 75% blockage in three of them, 90% in the fourth;
  • A rare tumor that can suddenly release large quantities of adrenaline;

and found that on the day he died, Floyd had;

  • An almost four times fatal overdose of Fentanyl in his blood;
  • Experienced pulmonary edema — also evidenced by the foaming around his mouth seen well before he was on the ground — which is a typical side effect of fentanyl;
  • No tissue injuries consistent with physical force required to cause asphyxia.

The alternate scenario, which Defense argues cannot be ruled out beyond a reasonable doubt, is that the adrenaline rush from violently resisting arrest demanded more oxygen for Floyd’s muscles. But because the fentanyl had filled his lungs with fluid, they could not provide it. His weak heart, trying to pump its remaining reserves of oxygen through nearly completely blocked arteries, simply gave out.

“The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

In any other trial, that evidence would seem to make a conviction impossible.  This case, of course, is like no other.  Already, many forms of jury intimidation have occurred.  Still, juries can often stun us, and predicting verdicts is a mug’s game.  In the crucible of deliberations, all the dynamics of human social interaction come into play.  Jurors cajole each other. They reason, plead, pout, intimidate, haggle.  Although the presence of at least one obvious BLM-type on the panel may preclude full acquittals, haggling might produce a token conviction on one of the lesser charges only.  Also plausible is a hung jury.   And as noted, the state’s shenanigans during trial provide strong grounds for an appeal. 

Anything but convictions on the more serious charges would shock the public, kept ignorant by the biased media and its own preconceptions.  It would also enrage the mob. Maxine Waters stood on the very steps of the courthouse inciting violence if the verdict is ‘not guilty’.  Death threats have been made against the jurors.  Antifa vandalized the former home of one of the defense witnesses. BLM agitators have vowed to spill the blood of police across the country if Chauvin is not convicted.   A mob came for Atticus Finch’ client, too.

“It takes a great deal of courage to stand alone even if you believe in something very strongly.”

If mob rule can determine the outcome of trials, then our legal system is lost and our individual liberties with it.  Protesters hold aloft placards bearing the words “Justice For George Floyd.”   In that, they get it all wrong.  We need this trial to be conducted fairly and objectively according to our laws, free from outside influence.  If that occurs, whatever the verdict, then justice will be served. Not for George Floyd, not for Derek Chauvin, but for our system which protects all of us.

If rule of law is to be preserved, and chaos and anarchy averted, we all now need to act like good jurors when reacting to this case, and all similarly volatile ones.  So, if you haven’t yet, review the evidence presented in this trial (to get the quickest overview without suffering tedium, consider just watching the cross-exams) as well as analyses that might come from somewhere other than your usual sources.  The mob will be aiming to raze our institutions.  Whatever ‘verdict’ you’ve arrived at, don’t let them, and certainly don’t join them.

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