By Christina Maxouris, CNN
In the last two weeks, jury panels delivered verdicts in high-profile cases related to the deaths of three Black Americans, roughly two years since they helped fuel a global movement against racial injustice.
The decisions put back into focus the killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, whose violent deaths in 2020 forced America to once again grapple with issues of racial bias, systemic racism and policing.
On February 22, jurors in southern Georgia convicted Arbery’s killers, Travis and Gregory McMichael and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, of federal hate crimes. Two days later, a federal jury in St. Paul, Minnesota, found former police officers Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane violated Floyd’s civil rights when they ignored his medical needs while Derek Chauvin, a supervising officer, knelt on his neck and ultimately killed him.
And crowds in Louisville protested against another jury panel’s decision to acquit former officer Brett Hankison on Thursday for his involvement in the botched raid that killed Taylor. He was not charged with her death, but for firing shots prosecutors said endangered a neighboring family.
Some experts say the massive social movements that rocked the US played a part in two of those outcomes. But instances like Hankison’s acquittal and, several weeks earlier, former Minnesota officer Kim Potter’s two-year sentencing for the fatal shooting of Daunte Wright make it hard to predict whether the guilty verdicts are part of lasting change or outliers.
“In many cases, it’s social movements that translate into political movements, that translate into political or legal change. And that’s what’s happening here,” said David Schultz, a law professor at the University of Minnesota. “Where it’s headed next, it’s not completely clear.”
Here’s what’s next for those involved in each case and what experts say the verdicts could mean for the future.
Arbery verdict raises awareness about laws perpetuating violence
Just a day before Arbery’s family marked two years since his murder, jurors found the McMichaels and Bryan chased the 25-year-old jogger through the streets of a Brunswick neighborhood on February 23, 2020, because he was Black.
The three men, already sentenced to life in prison after they were found guilty of murder in state court, are now awaiting sentencing for the federal convictions, which could add on more prison time and steep fines. Arbery’s parents, Wanda Cooper-Jones and Marcus Arbery, Sr., have called on other people involved in the case to be held accountable, including the first two prosecutors who were assigned to the case and recused themselves. One has been charged and an investigation into how they handled the case is ongoing, the state attorney general’s office said late February.
With his killers convicted, those closest to Arbery say they are focused on turning his legacy into a vehicle for change. The killing played a critical role in Georgia’s push to pass a hate crime bill into law and the overhaul of the state’s citizen’s arrest law. Cooper Jones also recently announced scholarships in Arbery’s honor, telling a crowd in Atlanta after the federal trial justice goes beyond the courtroom and it “ensures every child, no matter of his skin color, his socioeconomic situation, is safe and has equal opportunities to realize their dreams.”
The latest verdict in the case could have far-reaching impacts across the US because it shows other victims of hate crimes cases can be successfully prosecuted, and it also raises awareness about the kinds of laws that help drive this type of violence, said Thaddeus Johnson, an assistant professor of criminal justice and criminology at Georgia State University. “It is an opportunity to take stock of these mechanisms that perpetuate these inequities, in particular, when you talk about things like citizen’s arrest (laws).”
But because outcomes like this remain rare, many victims may not be willing to speak up or have their case go to trial and receive coverage, Johnson said.
Decision in Floyd’s killing puts new pressure on officers
In the trial for the three officers who were on scene when Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes on May 25, 2020, jurors convicted Lane, Kueng and Thao for what they did not do, rather than what they did. The panel found the three officers showed deliberate indifference to Floyd’s medical needs and Thao and Kueng failed to intervene and stop Chauvin.
The verdict has a powerful potential to influence change, Schultz said, because it puts new pressures on police officers and the so-called “blue wall of silence,” a long-standing tradition of solidarity among officers, even when members of the force are accused of wrongdoing. “Now we effectively have a precedent under federal civil rights law that says that inaction can constitute a civil rights violation,” Schultz said. “That’s a pretty significant expansion of civil rights law and police liability.”
The three officers now await sentencing. Chauvin, who was convicted in Floyd’s murder last year, pleaded guilty to civil rights charges in federal court in December. Prosecutors have requested he be sentenced to 25 years in prison to be served concurrently with his 22.5-year state sentence. Lane, Kueng and Thao will face a state trial in June on charges of aiding and abetting in the killing. They have pleaded not guilty.
The verdict may be another step toward accountability, but Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd, told reporters it will “never be justice, because I can never get George back.” He said he hoped the jury’s decision helps drive federal lawmakers to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which many view as a critical step toward police reform. The bill has twice failed to pass in Congress.
But Floyd’s words come amid a changing conversation of how local leaders want to tackle police reform. In Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, voters in November rejected a ballot measure to overhaul policing, marking a setback for the activists dedicated to defunding or dismantling the police department. And while Democrats had initially joined calls to defund the police in 2020, President Joe Biden addressed a national spike in crime during his State of the Union last week by highlighting a need to “fund the police” instead.
“We got hints that some things are changing, but I wonder and worry about the fact that a resurgence in crime in America takes the political pressure off of elected officials if they don’t want to change,” Schultz said. “To what extent does this mute any message for police reform?”
An acquittal speaks to ‘the bigger picture’ of reform
But if anything, the Minnesota verdict, and days later, Hankison’s acquittal, highlight the need to holistically rethink how police operate, and not just attempt to hold officers accountable after wrongdoing, said Johnson, a former law enforcement officer. It includes changing the policies police operate under, how officers and supervisors are selected and trained and figuring out how departments can create an environment in which officers feel safe to intervene and speak up in problematic situations, he added.
Jurors deliberated for three hours before acquitting Hankison, a former Louisville officer, of endangering a family in a neighboring unit when he fired into Taylor’s apartment during the execution of a search warrant.
Prosecutors argued he shot blindly into a window from outside the apartment, with his gunfire ripping through Taylor’s apartment and endangering a man, a pregnant woman and her 5-year-old son who lived next door. Defense attorneys said Hankison’s fellow officers were not well-prepared to serve a search warrant, and he made a reasonable “split-second” decision to protect them.
“(The decision) speaks to the bigger picture that it’s hard to hold these officers accountable when they’re acting under the office of the law, and policy and the direction of their local leadership,” Johnson said. “It really points to not (only) the sad and tragic ending, but the events that led up to it and that these are opportunities for reform, and that it shouldn’t happen anymore.”
Two lawsuits are ongoing, including a federal suit from Kenneth Walker III, Taylor’s boyfriend. His attorney, Frederick Moore III, condemned the jury’s decision, saying the acquittal “was not justice for Breonna Taylor or Kenneth Walker.”
Walker filed a federal lawsuit last March seeking damages for violations of his constitutional rights and alleging, among other things, officers responded with excessive force. Louisville police have said they do not comment on pending litigation. Cody Etherton and Chelsey Napper, who were in the neighboring apartment when Hankison fired, have also sued Louisville police and officials for violating their civil rights, alleging officers were “recklessly trained.”
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said Thursday the acquittal “adds to the frustration and anger of many over the inability to find accountability” for what happened on March 13, 2020, and added the city is working to build trust between police and the community with measures including banning no-knock warrants and changing policies around duty to intervene and search warrants.
In any of the cases, true change will not come out of one verdict, Johnson said. It will take time and consistency.
“What’s real justice in these cases?” he said. “If we don’t commit to a long-term plan… then unfortunately this will always be our conversation.”
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