How Derek Chauvin's Trial Illustrates The Judicial As Being The Most Powerful Branch Of Government
Move over O.J. Casey Anthony step aside. Jodi Arias … just stay where you’re at. To anyone and everyone who has been involved in the American judicial system over the last quarter of a century or so that caught the attention of the world, none of it compares to what the American legal landscape has produced in 2021. The trial of Derek Chauvin. Though all of the relevant facts have been discussed at great lengths—essentially, he’s a racist murderer who tried to use his inclusion of the Brotherhood in Blue as a mechanism to find him innocent in some way—there’s an angle to this case that I think speaks to a greater concern that hasn’t been focused on in any meaningful way. This lies in the fact that both the Chauvin trial (and all other trials from the 1990s on) has focused the most attention towards the sensational, as opposed to looking at how the court systems of the United States have deformed, molded, and set legal precedents that allowed the thought that Chauvin could be acquitted to proliferate.
Written By: Anton Sawyer
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I promise there is going to be a pathway leading to the repercussions of George Floyd’s murderer, but to give the proper context, we need to return to 1993 and two trials that drew in the entire world at the time: the trials of John Wayne and Lorena Bobbitt. To me, looking back throughout the most witnessed court cases that best exemplify every aspect of the American justice system rolled up into one, it’s this. Most people remember the trials due to the graphic, sensational nature of the crimes. Let me explain, after being raped repeatedly by her husband over an extended period of time, Lorena cut off John Wayne's penis, drove down a highway, and threw it out the window. Eventually, to quote Weird Al, "Mr. Happy" was found and reattached. When you look at all of the specifics to how each of the cases were handled—John being tried for malicious assault, and Lorena being charged with causing an irresistible impulse to sexually wound John—it shows about every single flaw that can be found in one convenient location. John went to trial first because Lorena’s defense knew the outcome could be overwhelmingly beneficial to their case.
Even before the trials began, the charges themselves seemed to be a bit counterintuitive to what would have been considered justice by the average person. John could not be charged with rape, no matter the evidence because the legal statute in Virginia which claims that rape can only apply to couples living apart or in cases where the victim suffers serious physical injury. Lorena was also not going to be pleading "temporary insanity" as that also doesn't exist in the same locale—rather, "irresistible impulse," the same thing. By the end of it all, John was acquitted of raping Lorena, and Lorena was found not guilty by impulse standards and spent 45 days in the state mental care facility. Seems kind of cut and dried, right? When you look at the specifics of how each case was handled, you can see how the decision of one judge could drastically alter this national perception of right and wrong. The allowing of certain evidence.
In 2019 a documentary called “Lorena” premiered. In that documentary, it would be found that the entire crux of Lorena's case—the fact that she had been sexually abused for years by her husband—wasn't going to be allowed in John's trial. The judge felt that the only prudent information that should be shared should be from five days prior to the alleged assault. This completely changed the complexion of what would be legally required by the state in showing any kind of pattern for John's behavior. The main elements all jurors from both trials who had gotten interviewed said at the end of the day the rulings fell the way they did because of justice, and the narrow field of time to look at. In John’s trial, there was one juror who refused to acquit because of the assault Lorena had to endure, even just the events that unfolded the day of the crime. She was eventually persuaded by the argument of “look what she did to him. It’s justice,” along with the completely narrow scope of time frame they were to consider. The opposite took place for Lorena's trial. The judge knew that the extenuating tortures she had received were critical to her mental state and allowed all of that to be admitted. It wasn't surprising that the jury found her mentally incapable at the time of her actions and she ended up serving 45 days in the state mental hospital. She was then free. I feel this is the best example of how two different people with two different judges (who are allowed to rule on opposite ends of the spectrum), can so drastically impact any and all other trials associated, along with also setting a legal precedent for centuries to come.
Is the judge who denied the patterned behavior evidence to be presented wrong? No. Not legally. Not at all.
Did his action paint the legal system into a corner where it could have allowed a serial rapist to go free? Yes. But again, not illegal. All of these examples lead me to the point of contention that the judicial branch in every area of the US is the most powerful arm of government. Judges, whether in state or federal matters, can allow or dismiss what they like with no other reasoning than “it’s my court,” and not even really be required to give a substantive reason. You can also ask that a judge recuse himself due to personal prejudice, but then that same judge decides whether or not he is or isn't biased, and then can repeat step one of doing whatever they want. Although, the best judges at this can at least justify their shenanigans with other precedents.
The optimist will look at the recent Chauvin conviction as a possible new direction. Considering how legal precedents are the foundation upon which all legal arguments are based, one would think that with the trial of Derek Chauvin, that maybe police officers can actually be held accountable; not only now but in the future. That this can be a watershed moment in allowing common citizens to not be victims of police overreach and brutality. To a realist like myself, I look to those who hold the power to see what the next piece on the chessboard might be moved. Given some of the recent responses I've read, I'm not too optimistic.
Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi had the most out of touch with reality response towards the verdict. During a press conference after the verdicts were announced, she responded with "Thank you, George Floyd, for sacrificing your life for justice. For being there to call out to your mom, how heartbreaking was that, and because of you ... your name will always be synonymous with justice." Pelosi has been at the political game long enough to know that with the ability to go nuclear in the Senate, repeal the horrible 1990s crime bill, and ram legislation through that could make people like George Floyd not have to die, this statement rings incredibly hollow.
Wanting to see how prosecutors looked at the case, the one statement that sent chills to my bone came from Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, who has examined over 100 use-of-force cases there. "This was something unique. The world saw what happened. To have video, witnesses, forensic evidence and multiple police officers testify against one of their own is unique and demonstrates how high the bar has to be in order to actually have that kind of accountability.” I’ve highlighted the part that gives me pause. Hold that in mind for a moment.
Another recent example of how the issues in many areas are systemic comes from Virginia. Army Second Lieutenant Caron Nazario was pulled over and pepper-sprayed by Officers Joe Gutierrez and Daniel Crocker. A lot of the news coverage goes over the altercation from start to finish, including the video evidence, but I'm going deeper because there is a direct correlation between what SLC DA Gill said and this event specifically. Though Nazario is suing the city, and Officer Gutierrez was fired, neither policeman did anything illegal per the Supreme Court Of The United States. I went through it more in-depth during the article "Supreme Court Rulings Untethering Police From The Law," in the case of Heien v. North Carolina, the Supreme Court ruled that as long as an officer admits they did not know the law, as in not knowing that a temporary plate was valid, and admit in court they don't know it, then anything stemming from their misunderstanding is admissible as evidence. So if they had found anything while they had Nazario detained, it would have been admitted.
I cannot imagine a time when the founding fathers would see the Supreme Court of the United States see it as rational to allow those who protect the average citizen to not be required to even know the laws. What has transpired over the last quarter-century is just as founding father Thomas Jefferson envisioned. He essentially predicted the future in a letter penned in 1823. “At the establishment of our constitutions, the judiciary bodies were supposed to be the most helpless and harmless members of the government. Experience, however, soon showed in what way they were to become the most dangerous; that the insufficiency of the means provided for their removal gave them a freehold and irresponsibility in office; that their decisions, seeming to concern individual suitors only, pass silent and unheeded by the public at large; that these decisions, nevertheless, become law by precedent, sapping, by little and little, the foundations of the constitution, and working its change by construction, before anyone has perceived that the invisible and helpless worm has been busily employed in consuming its substance. In truth, man is not made to be trusted for life, if secured against all inability to account.”
The DAs know how hard it is to prosecute their own, so I am hoping that the verdict in the Chauvin trial will set a precedent that many others will use to justify keeping power overreach in check. Given that they can transmogrify the entire course of human history based on whim, I think it’s time we re-evaluate life-long bench terms. Until we can find a way to keep the judicial branch in check, then it’s entirely possible that every single race-based police brutality trial can end like Chauvin’s … or Rodney King’s.
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