The Derek Chauvin trial.

How should the jury rule?
Isaac Saul Apr 20, 2021
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free or subscribe for Friday editions, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 13 minutes.

We’re covering the Derek Chauvin trial. Because of the sensitivity of this issue, we’re giving it extra space and skipping today’s reader question. We’ve also got an important story about the J&J vaccine, some interesting numbers and your daily quick hits.

Derek Chauvin tells the judge in his trial that he is choosing not to testify. Screenshot: KHOU 11 News

Quick hits.

  1. Former Vice President Walter Mondale, a champion of liberal politics and civil rights who lost his presidential race to Ronald Reagan, died at the age of 93. (The New York Times, subscription)
  2. Apple says it will let the social media app Parler back onto its platform after the Twitter alternative updated its speech detection and moderation techniques. (Axios)
  3. Medical examiners say Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick suffered a stroke and died of natural causes. Sicknick was assaulted during the Capitol riots and it was speculated that he died from an allergic reaction to a chemical attack. (Wall Street Journal, subscription)
  4. In his first speech as Attorney General, Merrick Garland warned about the rising threat of domestic terrorism. (USA Today)
  5. Joe Biden’s lengthy meetings with conservatives to discuss a more moderate infrastructure bill or a more modest corporate tax increase is causing tension among liberal Democrats. (Politico)

What D.C. is talking about.

The Derek Chauvin trial. Chauvin, a white police officer who spent 19 years on the Minneapolis force, was involved in the arrest and death of George Floyd, a Black man who was being detained for allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill to buy a pack of cigarettes. Video of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck as he pleaded for his life, called for his mother, and eventually passed out and died, set off a summer of protests and civil unrest over police violence against people of color.

Chauvin is facing three charges: second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. The jury could convict him of all three charges, none of the charges, or some of the charges. For each charge Chauvin is facing, the prosecution has to convince the jury both that his use of force was unreasonable and that his actions caused Floyd’s death. None of the charges requires proof that Chauvin intended to kill Floyd.

The second-degree unintentional murder charge carries a level of intent (not that Chauvin intended to kill Floyd, but that he intended to use unlawful force). The third-degree murder charge requires proof that Chauvin was doing something “eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind, without regard for human life." The second-degree manslaughter charge only requires showing that Chauvin caused Floyd’s death through culpable negligence that created an unreasonable risk, and that he consciously took the chance of causing severe injury or death.

Throughout the case, the prosecution has focused on the nine-minute and 29-second video that set off national unrest this summer. Prosecutors called forward medical examiners who said Floyd died of asphyxiation on the scene. In the footage, Floyd and the witnesses present repeatedly ask Chauvin to get off his neck because he cannot breathe. One witness, an emergency medical technician, even approaches to treat Floyd, but Chauvin insists she stay back. The city’s police chief testified that the prolonged restraint went against officer policy and training, as did use-of-force experts and senior law enforcement figures. Medical experts took the stand and ruled out that Floyd had died of a drug overdose.

The defense, on the other hand, has focused on the 17 minutes leading up to that video, arguing that Floyd resisted arrest when officers tried to place him in the back of a police car, and that he was intoxicated on illicit drugs. It was also argued that Chauvin was reasonably restraining Floyd when he died of a heart attack due to clogged arteries and intoxication from the drug Fentanyl. After the prosecution brought forward expert witnesses to argue that Chauvin used unreasonable force, the defense responded that each expert witness had pinpointed a different moment when Chauvin’s force became unreasonable, which it said was proof Chauvin was making difficult judgment calls in a highly stressful situation.

The defense called forward its own medical examiner, David Fowler, the former chief medical examiner for the state of Maryland, who said Floyd died because of heart disease and his “significant contributory conditions would be the toxicology, the fentanyl and meth.” Fowler said he would have ruled the cause of death undetermined. The medical examiner who conducted Floyd’s autopsy also testified. He told prosecutors if Floyd were “found dead at home alone” with “no other apparent causes,” it could have been acceptable to determine that Floyd died of an overdose. The defense used that to argue Floyd was “essentially a ticking time bomb.”

After 14 days of testimony, the 12 members of the jury have convened to begin deliberations. The process could take days or even weeks. In order to convict Chauvin, all 12 members of the jury will have to agree. If they can’t agree, the judge can rule a mistrial. During deliberation, jurors can pass notes to the judge to ask questions or ask for more evidence. These notes will be scrutinized heavily by outsiders hoping to understand where the verdict is heading.

In Minneapolis, schools are planning to go remote this week, businesses have boarded up their windows and the National Guard has already been called in over anticipation of unrest once the verdict is in. After the jury was left to deliberate, Chauvin’s lawyers asked for a mistrial over comments made by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), who told protesters they should “stay in the street” and “get more confrontational” if Chauvin is acquitted. Judge Peter A. Cahill made news by denying the request but saying “I’ll give you that Congresswoman Waters may have given you something on appeal that may result in this whole trial being overturned.”

Three other officers involved in Floyd’s arrest and death will stand trial in August on lesser charges. We’re covering this trial for the first time now that arguments have concluded, and will re-visit it once the verdict comes down. Below, we’ll examine some responses to the trial from voices on the right and left.

What the left is saying.

The left views the case as relatively clear cut, and believes the prosecution made it clear Chauvin should be convicted of at least one of the charges, if not all three.

In The Washington Post, Eugene Robinson echoed the words of the prosecution: “Believe your eyes. What you saw happen, happened.”

Robinson emphasized the prosecution’s arguments that resonated most with him: that the arrest began when a different officer “approached Floyd’s car with his gun aimed at Floyd’s face, which was obviously terrifying.” That Floyd was “not resisting arrest but experiencing claustrophobic anxiety about being shoved into the patrol car,” and that when he was taken out he said “thank you” to the police. And that “in a poignant, awful detail,” the prosecutor noted “that while Floyd was on the pavement with Chauvin’s knee on his neck, desperately pushing up with his knuckles and even his face ‘to give his lungs room to breathe,’ he kept calling Chauvin ‘Mr. Officer’ as he tried to make the policeman understand that he was desperate for air.”

“I have always seen Chauvin’s actions as only partly aimed at Floyd,” Robinson wrote. “I’ve always thought he was showing those bystanders who was in charge of the streets of Minneapolis, who had power and who did not. That is not the kind of demonstration police departments have a right to make to the citizens they are sworn to serve and protect. It is the way an army of occupation might intimidate its conquests into submission.”

In The Atlantic, Ibram X. Kendi wrote that compliance will not save Black and brown Americans from police violence.

“When we do not comply, we die like Daunte Wright did. When we do comply, we die like Adam Toledo did,” he wrote. “Compliance will not save our lives. Compliance will not save us from being brutalized and debased like U.S. Army Second Lieutenant Caron Nazario was in Virginia. Even when we are forced into a compliant position—handcuffed and prone and kneed like George Floyd was, incarcerated like Sandra Bland was—we may end up dead.

“Black and brown people are told in endless ways by fraternal orders of police and their powerful enablers: Comply and survive,” he added. “The defense attorney for Chauvin has said this in countless ways during Chauvin’s trial, and will likely say it again during his closing statement today: Floyd would have survived if he had complied… Enslaved people were habitually told to remember (and obey) the ‘good’ masters. Violently policed people today are constantly told to remember (and obey) the good cops… Police officers do risk their lives. But do I risk my life every time I pull over for an armed police officer? When I don’t have my documents in my hand on the steering wheel and I comply and reach for them, an officer can shoot me dead like one did Philando Castile. Compliance is not a lifesaver.”

In a CNN column, Jennifer Rodgers, a former federal prosecutor, wrote that the Chauvin trial is “believe your eyes” vs. “look over there.”

“Nelson [Chauvin’s lawyer] embraced this tactic, spending almost an hour showing body camera footage of and arguing about the period before Chauvin restrained Floyd, a time when other officers were trying to cram a resisting Floyd into the squad car, while virtually ignoring most of the 9 minutes and 29 seconds that Chauvin knelt on Floyd's neck,” she wrote. “Nelson then tossed out all of the alternate causation theories he had cultivated throughout the trial -- Floyd's pre-existing heart condition, his consumption of fentanyl and methamphetamine, the paraganglioma tumor, and possible carbon monoxide poisoning -- claiming that with all of these possibilities out there, prosecutors couldn't possibly prove causation beyond a reasonable doubt.”

What the right is saying.

The right has condemned Chauvin’s actions but is divided about how they think the jury will rule and is critical of the media for trying to make it seem like an open and shut case.

In The National Review, Andrew McCarthy wrote that as a legal case, the Chauvin trial is very difficult. He believes Chauvin will be convicted of manslaughter, and “that verdict would be well justified,” but doesn’t think all three charges will stick.

“Most of all, the case is hard because Chauvin and the three other police involved in the incident, who called for an ambulance in order to get Floyd medical attention, did not intend for Floyd to die or to sustain any serious injury,” he wrote. “The degree of force they used to restrain him after he forcibly resisted arrest appears excessive under the circumstances. Moreover, the cops failed to comply with basic police procedures for dealing with a detainee who may be having trouble breathing or who has lost consciousness. Nevertheless, Chauvin did not intend to kill Floyd… It is never an easy fit for accidents or blunders, regardless of how tragic or politically explosive. That is difficult for us to accept, particularly when life is lost…

“To my mind, as the evidence has played out, the easiest charge to dispense with is the third-degree murder count — the one the state fought to keep in the case even though Judge Peter Cahill saw no basis for it,” he said. “It is homicide caused by reckless acts taken with a depraved indifference to human life. The classic example is the sociopath who indiscriminately shoots a gun into a crowd — not intending to kill or harm any particular person, but heedlessly creating a patent risk of death or severe injury to everyone in the vicinity of the act.”

In The New York Post, James A. Gagliano reversed his previous position and said a conviction looks likely, but so does an appeal.

“John Maynard Keynes and Paul Samuelson have both been credited with the dictum that ‘when the facts change, I change my mind.’ So, what I once believed to be highly improbable — a murder conviction in the trial of the ex-Minneapolis cop who knelt on George Floyd’s neck — has a better than even chance of coming to fruition,” he wrote. “I think Derek Chauvin’s case for acquittal is reeling.

“Why? Two things: The prosecution laid out a masterful roadmap of physical and testimonial evidence, combined with recent high-profile events — fatal police shootings in Brooklyn Center, Minn., and Chicago — that will undeniably impact the jury’s big-picture framing of circumstances… The prosecution bears the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt and certainly committed a few unforced errors during the trial. But it also has a jury that likely is being pressured by what it sees on television. If the police shooting of Michael Brown in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, served as the catalyst for the Black Lives Matter movement, Floyd’s death has led to ruinous civil unrest in the wake of any and every fatal use-of-force incident. The jury certainly understands the stakes.”

In The Washington Examiner, Eddie Scarry said the prosecution is creating an “alternative reality.”

“The autopsy, conducted by Hennepin County medical examiner Dr. Andrew Baker, showed that Floyd died of a heart attack that was triggered by lethal amounts of drugs in his system and stress from the police restrain,” Scarry wrote. “Yes, Floyd was pressed to the ground for close to 10 minutes after an absurdly long struggle with police. Chauvin had his leg against Floyd's upper-back and neck area to prevent him from moving as an angry crowd circled the scene. And yet Baker found no evidence of asphyxiation. There was nothing about asphyxiation in his report. He maintained during his testimony that Floyd died of a heart attack and that if police had not been involved, he would have otherwise concluded that he died of an overdose.”

My take.

As a kid, my brothers and I used to print fake dollar bills. The advent and miracle of color printing allowed us to pursue one of our favorite forms of childhood criminality. Before the U.S. dollar began looking like a kaleidoscope to prevent fraud, the one “tell” that money was real were the red and blue hairs that existed on the bills. I remember, vividly, being up in our rooms around the printer rubbing real dollars up against our fake dollars to try to get the hairs on them, crumpling the money up to make it look real, and then seeing if the dollars would work in a soda machine. I remember, too, passing the dollars off to friends in school for gum and — at the pinnacle of our success — actually getting a soda machine to accept one (in retrospect, I am fairly certain this memory is a creation of my imagination).

Emotionally, there is no conflict for me: Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd. Yes, he had heart problems. Yes, he had drugs in his system. He also spent his entire life with those heart conditions and that addiction, without dying. The difference on the day he died was that someone kneeled into the back of his neck for over nine minutes. There are conflicting medical reports about whether it was asphyxiation or heart failure, but it’s not hard to see how either was caused by Chauvin, and it’s not a great argument either way: the defense’s case is both that Floyd was a large, physically imposing threat who needed to be restrained and that he was so frail a “necessary” form of police force killed him in nine minutes.

The dozens of onlookers, the teenagers filming, the EMT — they all saw Floyd fighting for his life. Apparently, the only person who didn’t was Chauvin, and perhaps his fellow officers too. Last week, advocates for police abolition criticized me for not representing their position as a potential solution to police violence — and this case could be Exhibit A: someone died because they allegedly passed a fake $20 bill, something I actually did as a 12-year-old for fun and with zero repercussions. If Chauvin’s actions aren’t prosecuted, why would anyone believe there is hope to reform policing?

Intellectually, there is no real conflict either. Chauvin committed an act of unnecessary violence. Someone died because of it. The prosecution presented a far more compelling case than the defense, and even on the question of potential “alternative causes” there was a whole bench of experts arguing Chauvin’s force was excessive and directly caused Floyd’s death. Conservative legal pundits like Andrew McCarthy view the manslaughter charge as a slam dunk; Gagliano now thinks the prosecution will get the murder charges; these are skeptics who questioned if the prosecution had overcharged that now think Chauvin will be convicted. It’s clear the prosecution has made their point.

Legally, and speculatively, I’m on the fence about what the jury will do, and am averse to predictions regardless. It only takes one juror to cause a mistrial, and there are at least three who were identified as “sympathetic to police” in the jury selection process. The prosecution tried to sway them by repeatedly reminding them this trial was not about condemning police, but about condemning a single officer’s wrongful actions.

Still, I would be shocked — and I think it would be an unbelievable miscarriage of justice — if Chauvin isn’t convicted of at least manslaughter in the second-degree. That part of the case seems clear cut to me: a death unintentionally brought about due to culpable negligence. The defense has pointed to Floyd’s repeated run-ins with police, but previous run-ins with police don’t justify the use of force in subsequent ones — especially not the kind of force we all witnessed.

At the same time, Chauvin has had 17 complaints and misconduct investigations during his time on the force. He has not been a beacon of good policing. On seven occasions, he used neck restraints to subdue suspects, and four times he used the restraint longer than necessary. Basically every American (and global citizen) who watched that video saw someone doing something wrong, and a man died because of it.

Yes, the murder charges seem less clear cut, but it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see a conviction there either. Judge Peter Cahill said he saw no need for murder in the third degree to be part of the charges, but it stayed, and McCarthy is probably right that it is the least likely charge to land a conviction. Of course, history is not comforting: the context around all of this is the obvious point that police are rarely held accountable for their misconduct, even in cases where citizens die. Just two percent of officers involved in fatal shootings are ever even prosecuted, and only 44 of the 139 officers tried since 2005 have been convicted. But that’s in cases where police shoot people.

Will this time be different? We can only hope. I’ve said before and will say again that policing is an issue I’m “left” on, but I think it’s only a lefty position because the political culture wars have overwhelmed our common sense. In my writing about Daunte Wright last week, I advocated for fewer police interactions with citizens, better police accountability, national data-sharing practices on police misconduct, and the need for our country to start treating citizens like George Floyd medically and psychologically rather than sending police to arrest them. Just as this case could be Exhibit A for defunding or abolishing the police, it could also be Exhibit A for any one of those reforms.

What if we were spending money on addiction treatment and not Derek Chauvin? What if we were sending a different kind of unarmed civil officer to enforce petty criminal conduct like counterfeit bills? What if cops didn’t draw their guns on someone during a traffic stop?

We’re not just talking about a cop who “made a mistake,” we’re talking about a cop with a sordid history of misconduct whose own police chief testified against his use of force. We’re talking about a cop who refused to give medical attention to someone clearly in need of it and rebuffed witnesses (and the man underneath him) as they pleaded for him to stop. And we’re talking about a suspect — a victim — who was face down, handcuffed, and being detained for allegedly passing counterfeit money. If this case doesn’t result in a conviction, then I don’t know what will. And I fear for what comes in the wake of that potential injustice.

A story that matters.

Most Americans support the Federal Drug Administration’s decision to pause administration of the J&J vaccine, and there’s no evidence so far that it has worsened vaccine hesitancy. Republicans were just as likely to support the cause as Democrats, indicating it hasn’t caused a political divide either, and 91% of Americans polled had heard about the pause, indicating high levels of engagement on the issue. Because the J&J vaccine requires less effort to preserve and only one dose to administer, it’s considered a critical tool toward vaccinating all American adults and the global population. Personal note: I speculated the pause would cause an increase in vaccine hesitancy, and it appears I was wrong. (Axios)


  • 63%. The percentage of counties in the United States that are considered “rural.”
  • 87%. The percentage of counties with highest rates of food insecurity that are also rural counties.
  • 45-33. Actor Matthew McConaughey’s current polling lead over Texas Gov. Greg Abbot, according to The Dallas News.
  • 47%. The percentage of registered voters who said Derek Chauvin should be found guilty of murder in an April 16-19 polling conducted by Hill-HarrisX.
  • 20%. The percentage of registered voters who said Derek Chauvin should be found not guilty of murder in an April 16-19 polling conducted by Hill-HarrisX.
  • 37%. The percentage of registered voters who said they were unsure if Derek Chauvin should be found guilty of murder in an April 16-19 polling conducted by Hill-HarrisX.

A note from me.

First off, thank you all for the outpouring of support and kindness in response to yesterday’s announcement. Last week, I asked readers to write up their own pitches for why folks should subscribe to Tangle, and I’m committed to sharing them for a bit. Here’s another one:

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Have a nice day.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably noticed your fair share of discarded masks on the ground where you live. The plastic face coverings have become a major pollution issue during the pandemic, but one Dutch designer is trying to draw up a solution. Marianne de Groot-Pons has developed a biodegradable mask made of rice paper. Best of all, though, is that the mask is packed with flower seeds — so if it is discarded on the ground, it may actually germinate some flowers. Demand has been so high she has already had to hire 30 more employees. (Editor’s note: I have no idea about the efficacy of this mask, but it’s a cool idea). (Euro News)


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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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