How the Trial Over Floyd’s Death Flipped the Script for Black Victims

MINNEAPOLIS — “His name,” the prosecutor said, “was George Perry Floyd Jr.”

These seven words were the first the jury heard from Steve Schleicher, a prosecutor, in his closing argument in the trial of Derek Chauvin. With them Mr. Schleicher, standing in a bland Minneapolis courtroom, answered a call from the spirited streets 18 floors below, where protesters, for nearly a year, had been shouting a simple demand: Say His Name.

Over the course of the three-week trial that ended last week with a murder conviction for Mr. Chauvin, a white former police officer whose victim was Black, race was rarely an explicit topic of discussion. And yet the presence of the Black Lives Matter movement, which demands that all Black people be seen for their full humanity, was felt throughout the proceedings.
Sometimes it was overt — potential jurors were asked how they felt about Black Lives Matter on a questionnaire. More often, it was implicit. The idea that Mr. Floyd was a full person and not just a body beneath a knee showed up in tearful witness testimony and in the closing argument, in which Mr. Schleicher uttered the word “human” more than a dozen times. The judge prevented the defense from introducing most evidence of Mr. Floyd’s past run-ins with the law, while a Minnesota law allowed prosecutors to elicit testimony from his family, presenting him in a way that has been rare in police shooting cases.
For generations, the American criminal justice system has operated by an old playbook in cases of police violence. The backgrounds of victims are placed under a microscope. Prosecutors deciding whether to bring charges against officers parse every misstep from victims’ past, as do defense lawyers in the rare instances that officers are charged.

There was the Laquan McDonald case in Chicago, where the defense tried to get the victim’s own mother to testify that he had a violent past. In Kenosha, Wis., a prosecutor focused in part on Jacob Blake’s past domestic abuse cases in explaining why no charges were filed against the officer who shot him.

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