The Chauvin Trial: Evidence Matters, Lawyering Matters

I made a mistake yesterday and spent too much time on Twitter before the verdict. The amateur lawyers and jurors were doing their thing, insisting that Derek Chauvin would be acquitted because that’s how it’s always gone. Each criminal case is different, a discrete and insular universe of its own. Precedents are for appellate courts; trial courts are all about verdicts. Each case stands alone.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison assembled a 21st Century dream team for the prosecution. They also had a dream case and the right jury to hear the case. Evidence matters. Lawyering matters. Voir dire matters. Everything came together for this conviction including some significant erosion of the thin blue line.

I’m not a fan of teevee cameras in the courtroom. The prosecution handled it well, acting as if they weren’t there. Eric Nelson (who can still suck it) played to the cameras and his own vanity. Lawyers tend to revel in detail and miss the big picture. Nelson kept making those mistakes and, more importantly, misread the jury. Jurors matter.

During his doomed closing argument, Nelson missed a chance to woo the jury. At the ninety-minute mark, he should have paused and said something like this, “Your honor, I’m going to need more time to make my case, but I see that it’s lunch time. I bet everyone in the court room is hungry. Why don’t we take a break and I’ll finish after lunch.”

Would it have helped his client? Given the evidence, no, but he should done it anyway as a signal to the jury that he cared about them, instead the judge was obliged to intervene.

I don’t know about you, but I get cranky when I’m really hungry. The focus of juror crankiness was Nelson who can still suck it. My idea of hell is his closing argument on a loop for eternity. Now, that’s damnation.

It’s another example of how the defense was focused on minutiae. Details matter but getting lost in them leads to three hour closing arguments that lead to disaster for a client. In this case, Chauvin had it coming.

I usually stick up for lawyers defending the indefensible. Everyone has the right to representation. This was a tough case but Nelson (who can still suck it) made everything worse with his showboating and verbosity. He was blowing smoke to get the jury to invoke reasonable doubt, but his case died of smoke inhalation, right? Apologies for the Nelsonism, they’re annoying, agreed? Nelson can still suck it.

It would not surprise me if the police union and the convicted defendant fired Nelson. Given the mountain of evidence, an appeal is unlikely to succeed in this case but the best ground is ineffective representation by counsel. Nelson was that bad.

A friend asked if I thought Nelson was throwing the case. Definitely not. Tanking a case can get you fired and even worse disbarred, especially in such a high-profile case. Cliche warning: He couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

I’ll let you in on a little secret: not all lawyers are smart. I went to law school with some dumb people, but they were good test takers, so they made it through. That’s not unusual in a society where teachers teach to the test, not because they want to but because it’s required. Herd immunity is a good thing, but group think is not. Heed George Harrison’s advice and:

In fairness to Eric Nelson, if the prosecution had the dream case, he had the nightmare client. Derek Chauvin is as unlikeable a defendant as imaginable.

One reason Chauvin murdered George Floyd was stubborn pride. The crowd was urging him to get off Floyd’s neck and he wasn’t going to let them tell him how to do his job. He should have listened. I’m convinced that many problems could be solved if people just shut up and listened.

Chauvin’s face was blank as the verdict was read. He blinked but his visage was as emotionless as when he knelt on George Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds. I try not to take pleasure in other people’s misfortune but watching him led away in handcuffs was a thing of beauty. His face remained expressionless and his eyes blank much like the character in this Kinks song:

Justice *was* achieved in the Chauvin case notwithstanding the desire of some to pull defeat from the jaws of victory. But like all criminal verdicts, it stands alone, it has no precedential value. One could even call it a legal island.

It’s a good start but few cases will have such perfect evidence and such good lawyering. It should, however, serve as a warning to rogue cops that things have changed, and that accountability is possible. Some of them, alas, will be slow learners.

In the end, people matter. The conviction was made possible by people like Darnella Frazier, Genevieve Hansen, Donald Williams, Charles McMillian, Courtney Ross, Chief Arradondo. Lt. Zimmerman, Doctors Tobin and Rich, and all the other witnesses who stood their ground and told the truth.

The truth matters.

One thought on “The Chauvin Trial: Evidence Matters, Lawyering Matters

  1. MICHAEL D STOREY says:

    It may be true that justice was served in that courtroom, but if this were a just society, Mr. Floyd would be alive.

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