Derek Chauvin and a Post-Rule-of-Law Society

April 17, 2021 Updated: April 21, 2021


A year ago, America exploded in protests and riots after George Floyd died while being arrested by police in Minneapolis. Today, the officer who held Floyd’s head to the ground with his knee sits on trial, but what many expected to be an open-and-shut case has been complicated by evidence that Floyd had dangerous levels of drugs in his system, and other contributing health problems.

Close observers of the proceedings are now contemplating the possibility of former officer Derek Chauvin’s acquittal, and how the public will respond. This places a special burden of responsibility on everyone involved to try to minimize the prospect of widespread violence. Unfortunately, neither the national news media, nor cultural influencers, nor many political leaders are rising to the occasion.

Coverage by major news outlets has largely amounted to cheering for the prosecution, so lopsided as to resemble a chess match in which only one player’s captures are announced. Evidence key to the defense—which has only to establish reasonable doubt in the prosecution’s case—are routinely downplayed or ignored. The result has been that perceptions of the case tend to differ dramatically between those who have followed it directly and those who rely on traditional news coverage, skewing the latter’s expectations and setting them up for a potentially devastating surprise.

The tone of these stories will likely come back to haunt journalists who value their reputations for objectivity, if there are many of those left. A typical CNN headline on April 10 read: “In Chauvin trial, defense has slender reed to cling to.” The New York Times reported that a Floyd friend was “trying to avoid testifying” without bothering to mention that this friend had also been identified in previous testimony as Floyd’s suspected drug dealer. Newsweek ran an opinion piece literally headlined, “Does Derek Chauvin Deserve a Fair Trial?” (Fortunately, the author’s answer turned out to be yes, but how did that even come into question?)

Some celebrities, who have more influence over public sentiment than they should, will have even more to answer for. Comedian Chelsea Handler, for example, said on Twitter that it was “pathetic” that Chauvin was even allowed a trial. It’s hard not to wonder if some of these voices aren’t, at least subconsciously, hoping for violence in the streets if the verdict doesn’t turn out the way they want it to. They seem to be practically handing out gasoline and matches.

Meanwhile, national political figures have been largely silent. This would be an appropriate role if the nation weren’t currently being whipped into a frenzy by activists calling for Chauvin’s head, regardless of the evidence. But it represents an appalling lack of leadership in the current environment.

Check out photos from the countless rallies about the trial, and count the number of signs with the word “murder.” Floyd’s death may indeed have been a murder, as it certainly appeared on video. Or he may have died, as Chauvin’s defense claims, primarily from a combination of fentanyl, COVID-19, and heart problems that the police couldn’t have known about.

I want to be clear here that either way, it’s extremely important to acknowledge and address the broader frustrations that many African Americans have about their treatment by the police. But it’s essential to the survival of the Republic that questions such as Chauvin’s culpability be decided only in a courtroom after due process of law—and not by enraged mobs, real or virtual.

The United States is in some danger of sliding into what has been called a post-rule-of-law society. The very principles of due process and the presumption of innocence of the accused, hard-won over millennia of tragic human experience, are at risk of being swept away if they appear to interfere with someone’s overriding concept of social justice.

This trend started in academia, where educators now risk being punished or even fired overnight for such offenses as quoting literature that includes racial slurs. A law professor at Georgetown University recently lost her job after agonizing, in a private conversation, about low grades among her minority students.

Big business is close behind: one Boeing executive lost his job over an article he wrote three decades earlier about women in combat. A California utility employee was fired last year for making an “OK” sign while sitting in traffic because another motorist had interpreted this as a “white power gesture” although the offender’s claim to have been merely cracking his knuckles seems more plausible, given that he’s Mexican American.

At its core, due process is really just an attempt by civilizations to use rules to prevent the abuse of power by individuals, and it has a long and distinguished pedigree. Long before the Constitution forbade depriving an individual of “life, liberty, or property without due process of law,” the Magna Carta declared that no free man could be seized, harmed, or lose his property except “by the law of the land.” And well before that, the book of Deuteronomy decreed that “A single witness shall not rise up against a man on account of any iniquity or any sin which he has committed; [only] on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed.”

True justice, as wiser statesman than I have observed, is not simply “done,” at least not by mortals. It can only be the result of legitimate, transparent, and dispassionate proceedings. The fury of the crowd is the enemy of true justice, because it warps accountability into revenge and precludes the kind of clear thinking necessary to deal with complex situations.

I’m pretty sure Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela would agree with me here—they knew firsthand the peril of angry mobs. Older generations of Americans, having studied the French Revolution and read “Twelve Angry Men,” took the principle of a fair trial for granted, even if they fell tragically short of providing them to everyone in society.

Whatever America’s failings, past and present, equal justice under law is still the right idea. We abandon it now at our peril. As the Chauvin trial heads to a verdict—whatever that verdict may be—our leaders, our news media, and yes, even our celebrities should be shouting this from the rooftops.

Professor William Wagner is president of the Great Lakes Justice Center. He is a former federal judge and is distinguished professor emeritus at Western Michigan University Cooley Law School, having taught ethics and constitutional law for more than 20 years.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.