Allahpundit already broke down the legal details of the various charges against Derek Chauvin and the three other officers involved in the death of George Floyd. But charging people with crimes and obtaining convictions are two very different things. What I wanted to focus on this morning was the way that the charges have evolved over a relatively short period of time and whether or not we’re seeing the normal evolution of a potential criminal case or some new phenomenon of charges being driven by media attention or public outcry. First, let’s see how some in the press received the news. (CNN)
At the news conference, [Attorney General Keith] Ellison insisted that the protests did not influence the charges.
“I did not allow public pressure to impact our decision-making process,” he said. “We made these decisions based on the facts that we gathered since this matter occurred and made these charges based on the law that we think applies.”
Ellison was appointed by Gov. Tim Walz to take over the case from Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman on Sunday.
A former Democratic congressman, Ellison had cautioned against a rush to judgment, citing the difficulty of prosecuting police officers.
So we’ve now gone through three stages in the evolution of the charges against these officers. Initially, there were no charges filed against any of the four. You can read that however you like, and some analysts have hinted that the local prosecutor never planned on bringing charges. But that’s actually a fairly typical situation. You need to investigate what actually happened, review bodycam footage and interview everyone involved before you decide to arrest a cop. We should also remember that George Floyd died on May 25th and all four officers were fired the following day on May 26th. That’s a pretty rapid response compared to most cases of a suspect dying in police custody.
We quickly moved to stage two. Derek Chauvin was arrested two days later on May 29th and charged with third-degree murder and homicide. There were still no charges filed against any of the other three officers, but officials told the public that the investigation was “ongoing.” But by then, the protests that started in Minneapolis had spread around the country, and cities were being set afire.
Two days later, on May 31st, Keith Ellison takes over the investigation from the county prosecutor. His investigation runs for three days until we reach stage 3 on June 3rd. The other three officers are charged and arrested while Chauvin has an additional charge of second-degree murder added. All of this took place in a little more than a week against a backdrop of flames engulfing major cities with those images running on a loop on every cable network.
So was the investigation into the circumstances of Floyd’s death handled thoroughly and impartially? The fact that Ellison had to go out of his way to insist that he did not “allow public pressure to impact our decision-making process” suggests that he knows exactly what this looks like and he’s trying to head off the expected criticism in advance. I’ll admit that it’s certainly possible that the prosecutor could have reviewed all of the civilian video and police bodycam footage within three days and been able to at least come to enough of a preliminary conclusion to justify charges.
But having determined that third-degree murder was the appropriate charge with the best chance of obtaining a conviction, what could possibly have come to light in the following 72 hours to justify the upgrade to the far more serious charge of second-degree murder? Despite Ellison’s protests to the contrary, it’s hard to avoid the idea that the new charge was filed because the pressure was on to get the protesters and rioters out of the streets.
If that’s the case, we’re left facing some difficult questions. Are we inviting a new era where a sufficient number of stores being set on fire and looted will result in prosecutors rushing into charging police officers? (I specify the cops because I highly doubt you will ever see these sorts of protests demanding the arrest of a civilian defendant.) All of the evidence thus far points to Derek Chauvin being guilty of something awful, but there are any number of police who wind up in deadly force encounters where the suspect had a weapon and a very real threat to either the police or the public exists. Those officers are almost always cleared of wrongdoing after an investigation is concluded. But will a sufficient amount of rioting force prosecutors to bend a knee and charge them anyway?
How many other people are charged with any given crime only to have the court of public opinion force an upgrade in their charges? We should also ask what the results will be if public pressure forces a prosecutor to go for a really big-ticket charge but the officer is then acquitted because of prosecutorial overreach? That still may happen in the case of Chauvin. Third-degree murder was going to be a tough enough hill to climb to begin with. A conviction on second-degree may prove entirely impossible.
This entire situation is growing increasingly disturbing. The criminal justice system may have its flaws, but it needs to be allowed to work while offering transparency to the public. Suggesting that “enough riots” is all it takes to get Lady Liberty to tip her scales a bit to one side or the other is a horrible precedent.