Thursday, April 22, 2021

Psychology 101: No Fair Trial for Derek Chauvin

My degrees are in physics and electrical engineering, so this isn't really a psychology lesson or class.  But I did want to give my impressions of the psychological forces that prevented Derek Chauvin from getting a fair trial.

First, I want to start with my guess as to what probably happened from Derek Chauvin's point of view.  Obviously I could be wrong, but here goes anyway.  He arrives on scene to find a big African-American resisting arrest.  Along with the other three officers, they try to put him in a police car but he resists, successfully.  That's four small guys (Chauvin was the largest at 5'9" and 140 pounds) that cannot get one unarmed suspect (6'4" and 230 pounds) inside a police car.  He's complaining he cannot breathe, but is talking and resisting.  They call for an ambulance twice.  Training says to put him on the ground and incapacitate him.  They do so, until the ambulance arrives.  A harassing crowd yells epithets and slurs at the police the whole time.  Contrary to media reports, Chauvin put his weight on the upper shoulder blade of George Floyd, not his neck.  The police are worried about the crowd, and wait an unusually long time for a high-priority ambulance to arrive.  When it finally arrives, the medics move several blocks away from the threatening crowd before they try to resuscitate Floyd.  One of the police officers goes in the ambulance and performs CPR on Floyd.

From Chauvin's point of view, he restrained an actively resisting suspect, without causing external or internal bruising or physical damage (other than pavement burns to the side of Floyd's face).  He made sure an ambulance was coming ASAP.  He maintained site security and the suspect's restraints in the face of a threatening crowd.  He ordered one of the policeman to assist the medics in the ambulance.

When they finally get to a trial, he finds his one (union provided) attorney is working against 12-15 state-associated prosecutors.  He watches the jury being selected, all of whom say they are biased against him, but really plan to keep open minds during the trial.  He watches the city award, uncontested, $27 million to the Floyd family for wrongful death.  He watches media as another local white police officer shoots another black man with a gun (when she thought she was using a taser) and riots begin again.  And the jurors are traveling back and forth from their homes daily through or near that rioting.  The judge doesn't grant defense motions for a change of venue or sequestration.  His single defense attorney accepts the biased jurors.  He doesn't stop all of the crowd from testifying about how horrified they were (emotions, not facts) about Chauvin's actions.  He sees state witnesses piling on with analysis, both to use of force and medical outcomes, rather than just best evidence.  An unusual accumulative testimony that is bound to have a negative affect.  He watches his defense attorney unable to effectively cross-examine medical experts.  Then his defense attorney uses a substandard use-of-force expert.  His medical expert is good, but flies out before the judge allows the state to recall their primary medical witness for a rebuttal that Chauvin's lawyer is unable to address.  Then, on closing arguments, the state lies on rebuttal and calls the defense liars.  That's the last thing the jury hears.  No mistrial is called by the judge for prosecutorial misconduct.  The jury is out for just 10 hours (two half days), way too short for an evaluation of the evidence that took three weeks to present.  Then guilty on all counts.

Chauvin is looking at up to 40 years in prison for actions that he considers lawful, in accordance with then-existing training, and restrained (from a force perspective).  He did what he thought was right, and the police administration and everyone else has railroaded him.  By the way, the death certificate indicated severe coronary artery disease, a tumor, an enlarged heart, and three times the probable lethal dose of fentanyl.  Fentanyl apparently kills by suppressing the respiratory system (asphyxiation); Floyd died from asphyxiation.

My point here is that Chauvin is in a bad place, his life is likely over.  And from his view point, he did nothing wrong.  Maybe the general public is okay with this.  But police officers won't be.  Who wants to go through that type of experience?  Any conscientious police officer is going to seriously consider getting out of policing.  Anyone who can, will.

Now I want to turn to the reasons for the lack of a fair trial.  I believe there were three 'actors' that were intended to assure a fair trial according to normal US due process where the defendant is assumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  Those would be the judge, the defense attorney(s), and the jury (a composite actor consisting of 12 individual jurors).

We all would like to believe that each actor has a conscience, believes in doing what's right (as opposed to what's wrong), and tries to complete his/her job to the best of their ability.  In case the judge misbehaves, there are appeals.  Defense attorney behavior, unless it is egregious, doesn't have any checks or balances.  You just have to hope the defendant is able to hire (or is awarded) a competent attorney.  The jury is supposedly checked by having twelve jurors with a diversity of experience and the requirement that either a guilty or not-guilty verdict be unanimous.  If they cannot come to a unanimous verdict, the judge will announce a mistrial.

But what if there is a mob outside the court house that has rioted and destroyed businesses and is just waiting to riot again with a not-guilty verdict?  And what of today's cancel-culture on steroids?  The jurors names will be eventually released, probably sooner than later.  The mob will come for them with a guilty verdict.  They will be driven from social media and potentially lose their jobs.  They and their families will be in danger.

Unfortunately, and this has not been emphasized in even the conservative media, the same risks apply to the judge, the defense attorney(s), and even any appellate judges that get involved in appeals.

That risk and pressure can explain the judge not changing the venue, not sequestering the jury, not stopping prosecutorial over-kill and not declaring a mistrial for prosecutorial misconduct.  He left it all for the appellate courts to address.  Nothing the crowd didn't want was going to be his fault.

The jury's behavior is a bit easier to understand.  The risks and pressure would fall most directly on their shoulders.  Many observers point out that 10 hours was not enough time to analyze and argue the evidence.  But it was enough to give a veneer to the fact of 'deliberation.'  They couldn't just ask for a show of hands for guilty and come back in 30 minutes.  Plus, there were probably at least one or two who were having trouble with their conscience, and needed a bit of prodding.  That probably could have been done indirectly by the others pointing out their names would come out quickly if they voted against guilty verdicts and caused a mistrial.

The last actor I want to address is the defense attorney.  He did not have the resources to properly fight a team of 12-15 prosecutors arguing a complicated fact scenario.  He especially didn't have the background to properly cross-examine medical experts.  I'm not sure why the union or Derek Chauvin himself did not hire additional defense support.  It may be with all the media attention, they could not find anyone willing to help or there just weren't funds available.  But the point I want to make is that the defense did a relatively poor job.  Like the judge, Nelson did just enough to potentially support an appeal.  I don't know enough about Nelson's experience or abilities, so it is possible he did the best job he could have with the resources he was given.  But like the others, he too had pressure to not get Derek Chauvin off, even if no one wants to point that out.

So I started with Derek Chauvin's point of view.  A good police officer that believed he was doing the right things to properly restrain and arrest a suspect.  An officer that is now facing up to 40 years in jail when he fully believes he's innocent.  Obviously, those are my assumptions.

But what about the three actors that were supposed to assure a fair trail?  They know the facts of the case.  Of course they cannot see into Chauvin's mind to see his actual intent and situational awareness at the time of the events (neither can I!).  But they know there was a reasonable set of facts indicating that Chauvin did not use excessive force, that his actions were consistent with his training and police policy, and that Floyd likely died from the drugs, his physical problems, and his decision to violently resist arrest.  The judge did little to control the trial and prosecutor misconduct.  The defense attorney did a substandard job for much of the trial (with some exceptions).  And the jury quickly gave into the mob.

What happened to their supposed conscience, belief in doing what's right, and doing their jobs to the best of their ability?  It really appears that their fear for their own safety, and maybe for their families and city, overrode all of those behavior patterns.

I know it's hard to second guess people when their safety is on the line.  Most of us don't want to do that when a case of lawful self-defense is brought to court.  So how could we condemn a judge, jury, and maybe a defense counsel for making such a decision?  The problem is that they very likely sent an innocent man to prison for up to 40 years.  They made a conscious decision to end a man's life in order to potentially save their own lives and careers.

This is not the way we want our justice system to work.  In fact, if this continues, the good police officers will quit and the system will eventually implode, along with our nation.

I want to wrap up with a little self-introspection.  Would I have voted differently if I had been on the jury?  Obviously, my analysis says that I should have voted not guilty, and there probably then would have been a mistrial.  I'm usually not very good at convincing others to change their opinions, so I would likely have been nearly alone on the jury.  But would I have caved to the pressure from the other jurors or even from my own risk assessment?

My last physical fights were in grade school.  During my employment, I had some senior jobs where I felt I had to take unpopular positions.  There were some political repercussions (within the organization) that made me unpopular with some folks.  But in those cases, I was not at physical risk and neither was my family.  The downstream impact did result in my retiring earlier than I normally would have.  In all those events, I did what I thought was right.

But in the Chauvin jury situation, my self-assessment would have been that me and my family were at risk if I voted not-guilty.  In planning to do so, I would have expected to have to quit my job (if I wasn't retired) and move to another state.  There've been times in my life where that wouldn't have been a problem, but other times when it would have been effectively impossible.

So I cannot say how I would have voted; though if I was retired like today, I would have held out for not-guilty.  But what surprised me a little was that none of the 12 jurors was in a position where they could, or were willing to, make the life changes necessary to vote not-guilty.  Of course, it's always possible that they all really believed Chauvin was guilty on all counts.

Unfortunately, this all makes me extremely concerned about the future prospects of life in our country.

No comments:

Post a Comment