Chauvin guilty verdict is important, but more work needs to be done to advance racial justice, Stanford scholars say
Stanford scholars Hakeem Jefferson, Robert Weisberg and Matthew Clair weigh in on the Derek Chauvin verdict, emphasizing that while the outcome is important, much work remains to be done to bring about long-lasting justice.
While the guilty verdict against former police officer Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd on Tuesday is an important moment for Floyd’s family and Black communities nationwide, it is only a first step, Stanford scholars say. Much work remains to advance a long-lasting kind of racial justice that this decision inspires.
Here, Stanford scholars discuss what the verdict represents. They point out that the facts and evidence presented make the case rare, including a video that left little room for interpretation. The verdict should be viewed as the exception rather than the rule, they say, and there is more work left to do to address the role of police in the communities they serve and the criminal legal system more broadly.
The following scholars shared their thoughts on the case and its broader implications for society:
- Matthew Clair is an assistant professor of sociology whose research interests include law and society, race and ethnicity, social inequality, cultural sociology, criminal justice and qualitative methods.
- Hakeem Jefferson is an assistant professor of political science whose scholarship looks at how stigma shapes the politics of Black Americans, particularly as it relates to group members’ support for racialized punitive social policies.
- Robert Weisberg is the Edwin E. Huddleson, Jr. Professor of Law and faculty co-director of Stanford Criminal Justice Center. Weisburg works primarily in the field of criminal justice, writing and teaching in the areas of criminal law, criminal procedure, white-collar crime and sentencing policy. His complete answers can be read on the Stanford Law website.
Were you surprised by the verdict?
Clair: I wasn’t surprised by the verdict, especially after listening to closing arguments. To be sure, it is exceedingly rare to get to this kind of accountability for a police officer; prosecutors rarely charge police for murder or even manslaughter. The vast majority of the time, prosecutors defer to police officers’ beliefs about the reasonableness of their use of force and decline to prosecute on that basis. We saw this in 2014 when the St. Louis Prosecuting Attorney declined to indict Darren Wilson, who murdered Michael Brown. But with respect to Derek Chauvin, prosecutors moved forward, and they focused on the unreasonableness of Chauvin’s use of force. Moreover, the prosecution framed Chauvin as a rogue police officer, unlike other police officers or policing more broadly. In closing arguments, a prosecutor said, “This wasn’t policing. This was murder.” Jurors, then, could more easily find fault in Chauvin without indicting policing as an institution.
Jefferson: This is a tough question. I wasn’t surprised by the verdict in this particular case, and in fact, expected the jury to find Chauvin guilty on all three counts. But that’s only because the evidence, in this case, was so unambiguous – the offense so absolutely egregious and so public in its form. The jurors saw what we all saw – a police officer kneeling on the neck of a helpless, restrained individual for 9 minutes and 29 seconds in broad daylight, as people standing around begged him to stop. But what’s important is that this case is rare. The case facts are often not this unambiguous and what that allows for is a filling in of the gaps with stories that fit our own prior beliefs and expectations, and that’s one of the reasons this case stands out. There was little room here for jurors – even white jurors who are, on average, predisposed to think more favorably of the police – to stand with the police officer in this case. But we should be careful in extrapolating too much from this particular case because most instances of police violence against Black people are not read as this unambiguously horrific, which means that whatever justice this moment brings is likely still unlikely for so many others who die at the hands of police.
I should also note that Black people are overwhelmingly skeptical of officers being held accountable in these cases, in large part because they rarely are.
Can you talk about why it is so challenging to hold a police officer accountable when excessive force has allegedly been used?
Weisberg: A combination of (a) often the force is not excessive, and (b) excessiveness is a very amorphous standard that is heavily fact-specific in application, and juries tend to defer to police explanations of why the force was necessary and proportionate.
Legally, what is the difference between an officer reacting in a split second in self-defense after perceiving a threat, and what Chauvin did to George Floyd – putting his knee on his throat for over 9 minutes?
Weisberg: It is crucial to see that this case is very different from the great majority of homicides by police. Most are shooting cases where it is a foregone conclusion that the officer had intent to kill – indeed the officer/defendant will concede that point because the case is all about self-defense. This case was to some extent about justification – how much force could be used if the civilian, George Floyd, was resisting. But the prosecutor didn’t and probably couldn’t argue here that Chauvin intended to kill. It was more about the subtle question of whether Chauvin, while not having purpose to kill, was animated by a sadistic willingness to take a great risk of the person’s death.
What does the verdict symbolize to you?
Jefferson: I’ve been careful in not taking too much from this moment, and I realize that makes me a bit of a cynic. To be clear, I think this verdict is important. It’s important for George Floyd’s family, and it is important for Black people who have too often been reminded of the disposability of Black life in the eyes of the country’s criminal legal system. But I want to caution once more against a kind of thinking that this verdict symbolizes some great change in the social order. As this case was being argued in court, Black and brown people were gunned down by police, and if history is any guide, not all of these officers will be held accountable for their actions. There is much work to do, and I can only hope that those working to bring about a more long-lasting kind of justice are inspired by this decision to keep doing the hard work.
What does your scholarship reveal about how the jury decided the way that they did?
Jefferson: Since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, my collaborators and I have been studying how Americans react to police shootings of Black Americans. In that work, we find that Black and White Americans react rather differently to these events. White Americans are more likely to support the police officer and Black Americans are more sympathetic to the victim’s case. More than that, Black and White Americans process information about these events differently, even when the information environment is controlled such that they get the same information about a fictitious officer-involved shooting. That is, when asked to read witness statements about an officer-involved shooting about which they had no prior information, White respondents more positively evaluated statements that supported the police officer’s position that he acted appropriately. Black respondents, however, more positively evaluated statements in support of the Black victim.
As we note in the paper, these differences in perceptions matter as it makes it less likely that a diverse jury will come to a consensus view when there is ambiguity about what occurred. In this case, there was little ambiguity of the sort we often see in these cases. That fact coupled with the fact that many members of law enforcement testified against Chauvin likely makes this case distinct, but again, we should view this case as the exception, not the rule.
From your scholarly perspective, what are some of the challenges to effect change?
Clair: In my book and in a co-authored article forthcoming in the California Law Review, I have argued that one major impediment to change is the credibility and deference that prosecutors and courts afford to police officers and their interpretations of events, even in the face of growing evidence that police often lie or obscure the truth. Judges could do much more to question police practices and, in general, reduce the power and discretion they afford police. Remember, judges are not passive actors here. They actively afford police power through warrants, such as the no-knock warrant that allowed police to enter Breonna Taylor’s home and, ultimately, take her life without consequence. Another challenge is that our society has simply decided to give police tasks that other societies have not, such as dealing with mental health problems, substance use, or offenses like trespassing, loitering or petty theft that are often rooted in poverty. Rather than spending money on police and sending them to respond to these problems, a better way forward is to decriminalize these problems, meet people’s needs with other services (such as mobile crisis units or harm reduction services), and invest in the provision of material resources in marginalized communities.
The killing of George Floyd shook Minneapolis and the country. What is the key question in this case?
Weisberg: Broadly put, it will be seen as a test case for police accountability. In legal terms, it might be a model for future prospectors about how to put on a clean case. It might also be seen as a vindication for the idea that it’s better to have such cases prosecuted by the state Attorney General rather than the local prosecutor.
The death of George Floyd set into motion a nationwide movement against police brutality, racial bias in the criminal justice system and anti-Black racism in society more broadly. What will this verdict represent to all the people who have worked tirelessly in their efforts to advance racial justice?
Clair: This verdict wouldn’t have been possible without last summer’s protests and the work of organizers in the Movement for Black Lives. It also wouldn’t have been possible without the community of people who witnessed, recorded, and cried out as Derek Chauvin took George Floyd’s life. The Black Lives Matter movement is diverse, with diverse strategies. For some, prosecution and conviction of police officers represent a form of accountability, and maybe even justice. But for a growing number of people in the movement, this verdict, even if it provides a sense of relief, functions to legitimate a criminal legal system that spends most of its time and resources punitively controlling and extracting resources from marginalized Black, Latinx, and indigenous communities. So, for the most ardent protesters and organizers, this moment represents a need to continue the work, as they have for decades, to fight for an end to policing as we know it, as well as to other forms of punitive legal control.
Jefferson: I think activists will rightly celebrate this decision while also recognizing that there is much work left to do. There is an understanding that convicting Chauvin was important but not the end goal. The end goal is to create a system of justice in this country that makes cases like Chauvin’s obsolete. And marching toward that goal takes a lot more than convicting any single officer.
Clair and Jefferson are in departments that are in the School of Humanities and Sciences.