Harvard Law professors discuss the Derek Chauvin trial, its implications, and potential paths forward

The guilty verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial proved for many an occasion for cautious optimism, a bit of anxiety, and questions about what comes next. But during a panel of Harvard Law professors on Wednesday evening, the overwhelming reaction was one of relief.

Professor Jeannie Suk Gersen ’02 moderated the talk, which included Professors Randall Kennedy, Carol Steiker ’86, and Dehlia Umunna. After exploring their immediate reactions to the verdict, the panel moved on to its implications for the future, including the long-term impact on the law and the possibility of an overturn.

The panelists agreed that the verdict, though emotionally charged, hadn’t been especially surprising. “My relief has a very strong undertone of somberness,” Kennedy said. “Because after all, the evidence was overwhelming, he’d acted so egregiously. So, it’s not as if I’m exultant, because this was quite exceptional. The fact that I even feel so relieved is part of the problem … I feel such relief because there have been other cases in which there was a lot of evidence of a police officer acting wrongly and there was no just punishment. What happened yesterday is hopefully a step forward, but there is much more to do.”

Umunna said that she also expected conviction, but was concerned that it took a “trifecta of evidence” — eyewitnesses, the video of George Floyd’s killing, and medical testimony — to achieve it. “As a Black woman and the mother of two Black teenagers, the whole time I’m thinking: He’s a white man and he’s a police officer. I can’t hold out hope that he will become accountable.” This caused her to flash back to her first arrival in America, landing in California in the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict. “The surprise I had was the level of anxiety I felt [this week], knowing full well that you almost had to have the perfect crime to get accountability … I felt relief, but it turned into anger and sadness that this is what it took.”

Steiker said that she was surprised only to see the “blue wall of silence” crumble, as colleagues of Chauvin’s came forward to condemn his behavior. This, she said, could be a mixed blessing if it creates a “bad apple” narrative that reflects on one individual rather than systemic problems. Given that the trial could be understood this way, she said she was heartened by U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland’s announcement that he’s “going to open an investigation of the Minneapolis police department. That undercuts the narrative and tries to make us think more broadly about what happened here.”

The panel emphasized the unusual attention given to this case, from grassroots activists to the statements of Congresswoman Maxine Waters and President Biden. Gersen asked what lawyers are to make of this turn of events — whether to applaud the activism, or to concur with some critics that the Waters and Biden statements amount to coercion.

Kennedy agreed with Waters’ controversial statement that citizens need to be confrontational. “Frankly, given the extent to which the administration of criminal justice has performed so badly — yes, the citizenry needs to be confrontational and say ‘We’re not going to take it anymore.’ We want people who are supposed to be serving justice, including the police, to serve justice — and when they aren’t held to account by the system, it’s commendable for the citizenry to make their voices heard.”

The question of why protesters turn to violence and looting prompted some disagreement. Said Umunna, “The question has to be fundamentally, … why do they express their anger by setting things on fire? Because a lot of them are tired. They’ve gotten to a point where peaceful protest doesn’t seem to work … People are angry, and when angry people act, it’s not in well-planned ways.” Quoting the Bible, she said “You must speak up for the voiceless and for the most vulnerable. That’s what people did this summer, they spoke up because George Floyd couldn’t breathe anymore.”

While Kennedy agreed with her overall sentiment, he had no sympathy for the looters. “Sure they’re angry, but they are acting in a way that puts their neighbors, their colleagues, their comrades in danger. It allows people who are unsympathetic to racial justice to use their actions against that cause.”

Steiker ventured another controversial opinion: that the Biden and Waters statements in favor of a conviction might have hurt more than they helped. “As a former public defender, I can’t help looking at this through a criminal defense lawyer’s eyes. And having public officials comment on a case, while the jury is considering it, is just not a good idea. Let’s just think about the kind of pressures that are put on juries to convict. Overwhelmingly it’s to convict poor people of color. It’s rare that it is a white police officer who is sitting in the dock. So, whatever we’re willing to tolerate in this case, it should not be that the ends justify the means.”

Umunna strongly concurred, to the point of worrying about the conviction being overturned. “I remember just screaming at the television when President Biden was speaking — ‘just shut up please,’ because a good defense attorney would highlight those points as grounds for appeal … I’m anxious because it feels like it’s not really over until it’s over.”

Responding to an audience question, Steiker said she was more confident that Chauvin would serve time. But she was more concerned with other aspects of the trial — including the impact of George Floyd’s brother’s testimony. “Minnesota is the rare state that allows victim impact evidence, not at sentencing, but at guilt. George Floyd’s brother testified movingly about George Floyd’s life, and what a wonderful son, brother, and person that he was — but what the heck? There’s a lot of research that shows that victim impact evidence is what creates racial disparities in the use of the death penalty, because majority white juries are more sympathetic to the families of white victims. Once again, we may cheer the verdict for accountability, but I worry that it will put a nice gloss on some aspects of the legal system that are really problematic.”

Another audience member asked about the three other officers who were at the scene, and Gersen asked what to make of their part in the incident. To Umunna, it was very much a question of human nature. “You had a teenager recording what was happening. You had bystanders saying, ‘Please, let him breathe.’ And then you had sworn police officers who were aiding and abetting a murder … I just wish in that moment that one of them had the courage not to be a police officer, but just to be human. For me, that’s a lesson that just sends chills up my spine. I always tell my students, ‘I hope you’re better people than you are lawyers.’ And I hope police officers are better people than they are police officers.”

Finally, the panel considered the case made by the defense, and their take wasn’t especially favorable. Said Umunna, “I wasn’t watching daily, mostly for my own mental health. But from what I saw, they did the best with what they had. The defense was, ‘Let’s smear the dead and point a finger at all the possible causes of death.’ That’s a pretty weak argument when you also have that trifecta of evidence.”  Steiker concurred: “I certainly think they put on what they could. It looked weak because it was weak.”