The defense has rested in the trial of Derek Chauvin, after spinning a bizarro-world interpretation of events in which George Floyd somehow killed himself. This line of argument isn’t shocking or stunning, given what we’ve seen before. But trying to turn Chauvin into the real victim, by asking what gave Floyd the right to die on him like that, is despicable.
Floyd had an enlarged heart, Chauvin’s star witness, forensic pathologist David Fowler,testified Wednesday. And that implied that Floyd also had high blood pressure. And he had drugs in his system. And he was in a “stressful situation.” And,finally, his heart “went into an arrhythmia and stopped pumping blood.” The fact that Chauvin pressed his knee down on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes was apparently, in Fowler’s telling, just part of the unfortunate “situation.”
When police officers who kill African Americans actually make it to trial, there is almost always an attempt by defense lawyers to blame the dead for their own demise. No matter how trivial that alleged wrongdoing might have been, there’s always a way to suggest Black Americans escalated the situation or made it more deadly.
The most common excuse for these police killings is that the victim was somehow not “compliant” enough. This can involve a range of behaviors, from simply demanding to know the reason for the arrest to physically resisting being taken into custody. Floyd’s fatal offense, according to Chauvin’s defense team, seems to have been failing to maintain textbook-perfect cardiac health.
This reasoning disguises what’s really happening in these incidents: The police dole out death penalties for minor offenses. In Ferguson, Mo., Michael Brown was jaywalking and suspected of stealing a box of cigarillos; the officer who struggled with him and shot him to death, Darren Wilson, was never charged with a crime. Daunte Wright, killed Sunday in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center, had been pulled over for a minor traffic violation. Floyd, of course, was suspected of trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill — a misdemeanor — and paid with his life.
But the definition of “compliant” apparently varies with color. The White mass murderer Dylann Roof, who killed nine innocent worshipers at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, was as noncompliant as anyone could possibly be — he fled the scene and was known to be armed and dangerous. Yet police managed to capture him alive, and they ordered him food from Burger King when he complained of being hungry.
The other principal way African Americans are usually blamed for being killed by police is the claim that the victim is “no angel” — that the victim’s “prior bad acts” somehow justify the use of deadly force and that race had nothing to do with the unfortunate outcome. But police have no right to kill someone for having a police record. And they have no way of knowing whether someone such as Rayshard Brooks — killed after falling asleep in the drive-through line at a Wendy’s in Atlanta — is angelic or not.
The problem with even attempting the “noncompliant” and “no angel” defense strategies in the Chauvin trial is that Floyd was not just fully restrained. After several minutes under Chauvin’s knee, he lacked respiration or even a pulse. Yet Chauvin persisted.
And so defense attorney Eric Nelson built Chauvin’s case around the far-fetched notion that Floyd, who was fit enough to work providing security at a nightclub, was in such delicate health that he might have dropped dead at any minute. That he expired while Chauvin was crushing his neck and chest is simply, Nelson implied, an unfortunate coincidence.
It’s hard to believe that anyone could buy this fairy tale, even if the jury sees this as a battle between competing medical experts. Fowler’s claim that Floyd died from his preexisting heart condition suffered much more damage under cross-examination than did the much simpler explanation offered by pulmonologist Martin Tobin: that Chauvin crushed the life out of Floyd, as clearly seen on video.
Prosecutor Jerry Blackwell brought Tobin back to the stand to refute some nonsense Fowler had tried to sell about the role carbon monoxide from the exhaust of the police car might have played Floyd’s death. But Tobin’s return to the stand seemed less about picking apart one more dubious defense theory, and more about reminding the jury of what obviously seems true: that no matter what else was happening inside Floyd’s body, the weight Chauvin put on him was what mattered.
It is always dangerous to assign too much significance to any single case — you never know what a jury will do — but the killing of Floyd was a watershed moment and the outcome of this trial will be another. We all can see who the victim is. His name is not Derek Chauvin.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is email@example.com.