Harry's Gang: Chauvin case won't solve all the problems it has exposed
March 26, 2021
There's no denying the Derek Chauvin trial in Minneapolis is having an effect all over the state, including here in Carlton County. The issue has been politicized, pitting ultra-liberals who want to defund the police against super-conservatives who claim Black Lives Matter is a terrorist group. Of course, neither side is correct. These labels are just slapped on by the other side to incite otherwise-reasonable people, who, without the hyperbole of the extremists on either side, would probably realize what a shame it is for all this to have happened at all.
But the outcome of the trial still holds deep interest, especially because there seems to be a chance of violent reactions no matter what happens at the end of the trial. The outcome will reverberate around the state in one of two ways: either more Minnesotans, especially minorities, will distrust the police, believing that cops will be allowed to do anything they want without repercussions; or, more Minnesotans will feel less safe as the police may lose some of their authority to make the quick decisions often needed to keep us safe.
Joanna Wiegert, a local criminal defense attorney, whose office is right next door to the Pine Knot News, agreed with me ... somewhat. "If these cops are convicted, the end result could tie the hands of police, restricting their ability to enforce the law. But if they are acquitted, many people, minorities, especially, will feel the cops have just been given a free pass to do whatever they want," she told me last week.
I thought it was curious that every person on the jury has admitted to watching the video of George Floyd just before he died. Doesn't that prejudice the jury?
"The reality is, with high-profile cases like this, potential jurors who may claim they don't know anything about the case are either lying, or aren't really understanding the question," Wiegert said. "Either way, I wouldn't want them on the jury."
I asked her if the current political climate affects the jury. I have this theory that the law moves in gentle waves toward the current public opinion, and those opinions are visible in a jury's verdicts.
"That's true," Wiegert said. "Current politics and the media really do shape the views of jurors. That's why voir dire is such an involved process. We need to weed out the opinionated, and we don't want a jury's decision to be based on the trendy political beliefs." For example? "You're always looking for a good way to get an answer to the question you can't ask. You can't ask, Are you racist? But a good lawyer can find that out while picking a jury. There's more than a little game show voodoo involved in voir dire," she said.
That's a great concept. Practicing law is neither an art nor a science, but somewhere in between. But I never realized there's a little voodoo involved, too.
I also asked her if the final verdict will be just. "That's a hard question to answer," she said. "In criminal cases, it's all or nothing - they're either guilty or not. Some people will think the jury got it right and someone will always think the jury mucked it up. Justice is fungible." I had to look that word up just to make sure I knew what she meant.
"They'll get a fair trial. I think the system works, for the most part. Sure, the jury gets it wrong sometimes, but the system works. I don't like that his trial is being televised, because the risk of performing for the camera taints the process. But overall, justice will be served. Just not everyone will agree with it, that's all," Wiegert said.
She said that if there is any long-term effect on the justice system from this trial, she hopes it will bring some consistency to knowing when cops should be prosecuted for misconduct. "Several agenda items need to be settled before we'll get there," she said. "Cops, and the public, should be well aware of what is allowed and what isn't." She thinks it will be some time before we see a real change in such policy, regardless of the outcome of the Chauvin trial.
We are pretty separated from the Twin Cities area, so we probably won't see the immediate effects of the jury's verdict. I am confident justice will be served but I'm not confident that this trial will settle any burning issues. We have a lot of work to do before that happens.