Daily Times (Primos, PA)
Verdicts are in the court of public opinion
When the trial of Lizzie Borden was taking place more than a century ago in Falls River, Mass., the New York Times ran an editorial which contained this prescient sentence:
“The verdict, if there shall be a verdict, will make little difference.”
Lizzie was acquitted of murdering her father and stepmother. But no one remembers that. We were the children who grew up chanting, “Lizzie Borden took an axe/ And gave her mother 40 whacks/ And when she saw what she had done/She gave her father 41.”
Institutional memory convicts her, even though she died a free woman. The court of public opinion is often more powerful than legal tribunals.
That’s why I believe that even if he is acquitted of the crimes he is charged with committing, Derek Chauvin will remain a guilty murderer in the minds of many who only know what they see in videos and hear from “unbiased” legal pundits and experts. If you were to listen to CNN, MSNBC, ABC, NBC, CBS, Court TV, and NPR, you would likely be wondering why we’re even bothering to have a trial. After all, it’s so clear. Chauvin choked the life out of Floyd.
Even if the law provides some justification for his acts, many in the public will wilfully ignore it. And that’s partly because of preconceived bias against police, justifiable anger at a system that sometimes steamrolls over the rights of Black men, ignorance of what “reasonable doubt” and “causation” really mean, and a P.R. campaign by the media. It’s pure naivete to believe that the high priests and priestesses of the airwaves are waiting for the facts to be elicited, and for both adversaries in this adversarial process to be heard. It’s foolish to think the editorialists are waiting for the process to play itself out. For them, justice is one flavor, one color. Thumb on the scale, they only pretend to keep open minds.
Don’t believe me? Spend a few minutes watching Erin Burnett on CNN roll her eyes at the suggestion that Floyd died of a fentanol overdose. Listen as retired judges on Court TV praise the “devastating” performance of the D.A. Absorb the sober, almost mournful commentaries of “former federal prosecutors” wondering how the defense can overcome the damaging testimony of police officers criticizing a fellow cop.
No one seems to realize that we’ve only reached intermission, base camp at Everest, the midway point. No one, that is, in the business of shaping public opinion.
This is why cameras should never have been allowed in courtrooms. Far from illuminating the process, they allow “media lawyers” to bastardize it, playing to the lascivious lens of public interest.
So we will watch, and we will listen, and we will draw our own conclusions about Chauvin’s guilt, based in large part upon our personal prejudice. We will also be swayed by the “experts” who reinforce what we already believe. It is only the jurors, deliberating with that societal Sword of Damocles dangling over their collective heads, who will have the official word on what happens. It is only that jury that will write the conventional history of this moment. We observers, however, will write our own narratives, like the one that sprang up after Rodney King’s assailants were acquitted: Black man couldn’t get justice, white cops were racist, society was cheated.
We did the same thing with O.J. of course, those of us who watched in horror as a jury of the football star’s “peers” sifted through the evidence and ignored what had been served up to them on a silver platter: Guilt, unequivocal and beyond a reasonable doubt. The term “jury nullification” was novel then, but became so popular that now we use it every time we see a verdict we don’t like.
Both of these acquittals should never have happened, but through the alchemy of brilliant lawyering and corrupted fact-finders, guilty people found a way out. You can quibble over my assessment of guilt and innocence. The juries obviously did. But my point is to highlight the fact that no matter what verdict is handed down in one court, the verdict in the court of public opinion, which lingers much longer than even the temporal lives of the accused and their victims, is completely different. It is also more powerful.
We don’t know whether the Floyd jury will look at the evidence presented by the prosecutor and conclude that Derek Chauvin deliberately squeezed the life out of George Floyd, whether it was negligent homicide, or whether there is some legal justification for his act. We don’t know, yet, whether one person will hold out to make a unanimous verdict impossible. We don’t know if the coroner’s report that Floyd had a lethal dose of fentanyl in his system will sway the jurors away from holding Chauvin guilty for his death, or whether the prosecution will be able to prove how irrelevant that is to the fact that a knee crushed his neck for nine long minutes.
What we do know is that this case transcends George Floyd’s death. It’s another race reckoning.
Never underestimate the toxic impact of self-interested pundits, the thirst for restorative justice, and the hall of mirror effect created by the camera which doesn’t always reflect the truth.
As Lizzie found out, the verdict is superfluous.