What is the Chauvin defense theory? From the motions they filed, we knew they were going to argue that George Floyd died of an accidental drug overdose. During the opening, however, they introduced this “unruly mob” idea, that the officers felt so threatened that they were prevented from providing “care” for Floyd. When this “angry mob” theory suddenly appeared in the defense opening, I hoped that I wasn’t hearing dog whistles. Turns out I was.
One by one the people who were forced to watch Floyd be killed by the police took the witness stand to tell their stories. Four young women under the age of 18, a Black man, an off-duty firefighter, and an older Black man all described, often through tears, their feelings of powerless, as well as the anguish and guilt with which they continue to live. Each witness courageously testified, and all deserve respect and empathy.
Yet, most were questioned by the defense in an oddly hostile way.
First, there was Donald Williams, whose voice we hear in the videos calling Chauvin a “bum,” while pleading with him to get off Floyd’s neck. At one point during his testimony, Williams dabbed at the tears in his eyes with a tissue when he recounted how completely powerless he felt watching Floyd being murdered before his eyes.
The defense cross-examination strategy seemed designed to goad Williams into admitting he was angry. After listing the many names Williams called Chauvin and [fellow officer Tou] Thao, the defense repeatedly challenged Williams to acknowledge his anger.
“Angry?” I thought. “Who wouldn’t be angry watching the police kill a man before his or her eyes?” But then I heard the whistle and I realized Williams, a Black man, was going to be Exhibit 1 for the defense, an angry Black man threatening the police and preventing them from providing the medical care we have been told they so desperately wanted to provide to Floyd.
The last questions asked by the defense of young Darnella Frazier during her cross-examination were about her posting the video on Facebook and having it go “viral.” “It changed your life?” said the defense lawyer. “Yes,” she answered. The defense asked no more questions. What were we, and the jury, to make of this? Did it bring this young woman, who talked about her social anxiety, the fame, and attention she was seeking?
One of the cardinal rules of cross-examination is never to ask a question to which you do not know the answer. When the state had the opportunity to question her again, the prosecutor asked, “How did it change your life?” And this is when we heard, for the first time, that when this young Black woman saw George Floyd, she saw her father, her brother and her uncles. Through her tears, she told us that she often stays up at night praying to George Floyd and apologizing that she didn’t do more to help him.
Why did the defense lawyer assume that this young Black woman benefitted from filming and posting the murder of a Black man? It was creepily reminiscent of the postcards of lynchings that White people used to send to each other. At minimum, this question, and the assumption behind it, reflect a devaluation of Black life–of a man who was murdered, and a young woman traumatized by being witness to what happened to him.
But this case is not about race. That is what the defense lawyer said twice to one of the prospective jurors. I wondered why he thought he could say such a thing because, in my mind, this case is all about race.