While the nation paused for the reading of the guilty verdict against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin — and many rejoiced — activists say now is a moment to keep moving forward in addressing racial injustice.
“It’s a relief, but the celebration is premature,” Rev. Jesse Jackson told CNN. “We must break the backbone of legal lynching forever. Police killing people is getting away with legal lynching,” Jackson said. “So, we still have a lot of work to do, this is a first down, not a touchdown.”
The evidence of the work ahead can be found no more than ten miles away from the courthouse where Chauvin was convicted, Jackson said. In the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center, burial plans are underway for Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man who was fatally shot by a police officer during a traffic stop on April 11.
Chauvin, 45, was convicted Tuesday of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter of George Floyd — all three of the charges he faced. The jurors deliberated for more than 10 hours over two days before coming to their decision.
The verdict reverberated throughout the US, much of which saw large-scale demonstrations in the wake of Floyd’s death in May 2020. Footage of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than 9 minutes ignited weeks of protests — as well as looting and unrest — and refueled national conversations around policing and racial bias in the US.
“This is a huge day for the world,” Floyd’s girlfriend Courteney Ross told reporters outside the courthouse Tuesday. “We walked around with eyes wide shut for a long time, so they’re starting to open today, and this is going to be the first in a future of change.”
The teen who captured the video that shocked the country said she cried when the verdict was announced.
“George Floyd we did it!!” Darnella Frazier said on Facebook. “Justice has been served.”
In a statement, the Floyd family described the verdict as “painfully earned justice.” It added: “This case is a turning point in American history for accountability of law enforcement and sends a clear message we hope is heard clearly in every city and every state.”
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz lauded the verdict, although he reiterated that there is much more to do in enacting change for the Black community in his state.
“This is the floor, not the ceiling of where we need to get to,” Walz said. “We know that accountability in the courtroom is only the very first step.”
President Joe Biden also welcomed the verdict, but said the outcome was “too rare” for the country to turn away now from issues of systemic racism. “This can be a moment of significant change,” he said.
The second-degree murder charge said Chauvin assaulted Floyd with his knee, which unintentionally caused Floyd’s death. The third-degree murder charge said Chauvin acted with a “depraved mind,” and the manslaughter charge said his “culpable negligence” caused Floyd’s death.
Chauvin could face up to 40 years in prison for second-degree murder, up to 25 years for third-degree murder and up to 10 years for manslaughter. Minnesota’s sentencing guidelines recommend about 12.5 years in prison for each murder charge and about four years for the manslaughter charge. In this case, the state has asked for a tougher sentence than the recommendations provide. Chauvin’s sentencing is set for eight weeks from now.
Inside the court, Philonise Floyd, George Floyd’s younger brother, clasped his hands over his head in prayer as the verdicts were read, according to pool reporters, including CNN’s Josh Campbell. During the third guilty verdict, his hands shook back and forth and he kept his head down and eyes closed as his head nodded up and down, the report said.
After court concluded, Philonise Floyd was seen crying as he hugged all four prosecutors.
“I was just praying they would find him guilty,” he explained. “As an African American, we usually never get justice.”
In the streets of Minneapolis, the verdicts led to cries of joy and sighs of relief among those nervously watching the trial, including many people outside the Cup Foods store where Floyd took his final breaths.
Over about three weeks of testimony in court, Minnesota prosecutors repeatedly told jurors to “believe your eyes” and rely on that video.
“This case is exactly what you thought when you saw it first, when you saw that video. It is exactly that. You can believe your eyes,” prosecuting attorney Steve Schleicher said in closing arguments. “This wasn’t policing. This was murder.”
The defense called seven witnesses — but not Chauvin himself, as he invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to testify. Defense attorney Eric Nelson argued that Chauvin’s use of force was reasonable, that he was distracted by hostile bystanders and that Floyd died of other causes.
How the trial unfolded
Prosecutors called 38 witnesses over the course of three separate phases of the trial.
First, bystanders at the scene testified about their fear and horror as they watched Floyd slowly die under Chauvin’s restraint. Next, a series of police supervisors and use-of-force experts — including Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo — criticized Chauvin’s continued kneeling as excessive and unreasonable, particularly after Floyd had passed out, stopped breathing and had no pulse.
Finally, five separate medical experts explained that Floyd died from a lack of oxygen when Chauvin restricted his ability to breathe in what’s known as “positional asphyxia.”
In the state’s closing argument, Schleicher said Chauvin knelt on Floyd for so long because of his pride and his ego in the face of concerned bystanders.
“He was not going to let these bystanders tell him what to do. He was going to do what he wanted, how he wanted, for as long as he wanted. And there was nothing, nothing they can do about it because he had the authority. He had the power, and the other officers, the bystanders were powerless,” he said. “He was trying to win, and George Floyd paid for it with his life.”
He contrasted Chauvin’s “ego-based pride” with the proper feelings of pride in wearing a police badge and praised policing as a noble profession. He insisted the state was prosecuting Chauvin individually — not policing in general.
“This is not an anti-police prosecution; it is a pro-police prosecution,” he said. “There is nothing worse for good police than bad police.”
In response, Nelson said Chauvin acted as a “reasonable officer” would in that situation and said there was no evidence he intentionally or purposefully used force that was unlawful.
“You have to take into account that officers are human beings, capable of making mistakes in highly stressful situations,” Nelson said. “In this case, the totality of the circumstances that were known to a reasonable police officer in the precise moment the force was used demonstrates that this was an authorized use of force, as unattractive as it may be. This is reasonable doubt.”
The three other former officers on scene — Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao — are charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter. They have pleaded not guilty, and their joint trial will be held this summer.