For people around the world, the killing of George Floyd was about race. A white police officer, with three other officers nearby, kneeled on the neck of a Black man until he stopped breathing, and protests erupted across the country. Corporations and governments promised change, and a new generation of civil rights leaders rose up.
Yet in the courtrooms where those officers faced trial for their roles in Floyd’s killing — including the three who were convictedThursday — race was rarely mentioned, at least explicitly, and lawyers and judges told jurors not to consider it.
When a potential juror who appeared to be Black told Judge Paul Magnuson at the trial of former officers J. Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao that he didn’t know if he could be impartial “because of my color,” Magnuson responded: “There is absolutely nothing about the subject of religion, race or ethnicity that’s involved in this case.” The man was later dismissed from serving on the jury.
The disconnect between the public prism through which the case was viewed and its handling in court is due partly to the specific charges federal prosecutors pursued, which didn’t include a hate crime. But to some, it also reflected the failure of the legal system to confront issues of race, and how a justice system that often seeks to be colorblind may be stacked against people of color.
“Would this have happened to a white man? Probably not. Everyone on the jury knows that, and you have a jury that has no Black people on it,” T. Anansi Wilson, director of the Center for the Study of Black Life and the Law at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, said before Thursday’s verdict. When he heard Magnuson’s comment, Wilson said, “I thought, this is another blow to most people of color, and particularly Black folks’, belief in the judicial system.”
Floyd, 46, died in May 2020 after Officer Derek Chauvin placed his knee on Floyd’s neck and pinned him to the street, facedown and gasping for air, for almost 10 minutes. Kueng knelt on Floyd’s back, Lane held down Floyd’s legs and Thao kept bystanders from intervening.
Chauvin was convicted last year of state murder and manslaughter charges and was sentenced to 22 1/2 years in prison. In December, he pleaded guilty to a federal charge of violating Floyd’s civil rights, including using unreasonable force, by kneeling on Floyd’s neck even though he was handcuffed and not resisting — a scene a bystander captured on cellphone video.
Kueng, who is Black; Lane, who is white; and Thao, who is Hmong American, were convicted on federal charges that they willfully deprived Floyd of his constitutional rights while acting under “color of law,” or government authority. They also are scheduled to go on trial in state court in June on charges of aiding and abetting both murder and manslaughter.
Federal prosecutors argued at the men’s trial in a St. Paul courtroom that the officers saw Floyd needed medical care and did nothing to help as Chauvin slowly killed Floyd in front of them. Defense attorneys argued that Chauvin was the most senior officer on the scene and was calling the shots. They also said Floyd was acting like he was high and struggled with officers, who had responded to a call accusing Floyd of using a counterfeit $20 bill for a pack of cigarettes at a corner market.
The trial, which focused mostly on what the men did and didn’t do, varies from other high-profile civil rights cases that focus explicitly on race, such as the trial of the three men charged with killing Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. Those men, who are white, were convicted of a hate crime for chasing Arbery down and killing him because he was Black.
To support the hate crime charges, prosecutors presented text messages and social media posts in which two of the men used racist slurs and made derogatory comments about Black people. Witnesses also testified the men made racist statements.
The charges against the officers in the Floyd killing didn’t involve questions of racial bias, so attorneys and judges hearing the cases largely steered away from the topics. But the defendants, typically through their attorneys, at times used coded language to raise the topic in jurors’ consciousness, legal experts say — from describing Floyd as acting high to being in a gang neighborhood or referring to his superhuman strength.
Mark Osler, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, said many judges will try to keep “hot-button” topics from being discussed at trial in hopes of avoiding jury decisions that are based on emotion rather than the facts of a case, determining that race isn’t relevant to the charges.
He pointed to the federal trial of officers involved in the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles. Four white officers were charged with federal civil rights violations after they were acquitted by a jury in state court of beating the Black motorist. Their acquittals prompted violent race riots, but at their federal trial, race was not a focus, Osler said.
Wilson criticized judges and others in the system who don’t want to acknowledge the role race plays, noting it’s already an issue in everything from how communities are policed to who writes laws, what constitutes a jury of one’s peers and the funding for public defenders’ offices. He said he often hears judges and others say they are afraid of politicizing things or that people will lose faith in the system.
“My question is always ‘Which people? Who had faith in it in the first place?’” he said. “I don’t know many Black folks or other people of color, particularly those that are darker complected, that have any faith in the court system.”
To Osler, the judge’s admonition that the case wasn’t about race was “a fiction.”
“This was a case the entire world saw as about race,” Osler said. “Whether a judge tells people not to think about race or not, they will.”