"Our civilization," wrote G.K. Chesterton, has "very justly decided that determining guilt or innocence is a thing too important to be trusted to trained men … . When it wants a library catalogued, or the solar system discovered, or any trifle of that kind, it uses specialists. But when it wishes anything done which is really serious, it collects twelve ordinary [citizens]. The same thing was done, if I remember right, by the Founder of Christianity."
A reassuring thought this week. But in a different spirit Chesterton also wrote: "Many like you have trusted to civilization. Many clever Babylonians, many clever Egyptians, many clever men at the end of Rome. Can you tell me, in a world that is flagrant with the failures of civilization, what there is particularly immortal about yours?"
As we digest the sweeping guilty verdicts handed down after one day of deliberations in the trial of Derek Chauvin on murder and manslaughter charges in the death of George Floyd last May, with the National Guard on alert behind fences and barricades across the Twin Cities — and with the trial itself having wrapped up Monday with the judge denouncing "abhorrent" disrespect for the rule of law exhibited by sundry public officials in connection with this proceeding — it is hard to decide which Chestertonian mood seems more timely.
We must cling to faith in our besieged institutions, while soberly facing the peril American civilization seems to be in just now.
Let's start by facing this: A few months back, I wrote in this space about the "staggering challenge" Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill "faces in ensuring a proceeding that will actually deserve to be called a fair trial for Chauvin." I noted that after nine months worth of pronouncements of Chauvin's guilt by public officials from Joe Biden to Jacob Frey and beyond, after coast-to-coast riots, after hostile saturation publicity and the aforementioned war zone fortification of downtown Minneapolis, seating an impartial and unintimidated panel of jurors was going to be no simple task.
Unfortunately, despite an honest and skillful effort, Cahill was not fully able to meet his staggering challenge.
Cahill early on rejected requests to move the trial, and in the middle of jury selection the reckless, feckless leaders of Minneapolis announced with fanfare a $27 million wrongful-death settlement with George Floyd's family. Cahill dismissed two jurors who admitted this had made impartiality impossible once and for all. But he doggedly pressed on.
Then, incredibly, because he had also decided not to sequester the jury during trial, the seated panel was exposed to the shocking news of another racially charged local tragedy in the shooting death of Daunte Wright by a Brooklyn Center police officer. Unrest in the streets followed, along with an intensified national spotlight, culminating over the weekend in what can only be called an incitement of mob lawlessness from a sitting member of Congress, focused specifically on the Chauvin jury's coming decision.
"I hope we get a verdict that says guilty, guilty, guilty," said Rep. Maxine Waters of California. "And if we don't, we cannot go away. We've got to stay on the street. We get more active, we've got to get more confrontational. We've got to make sure that they know that we mean business."
At the end of the day Monday, after the jury had retired to deliberate, Cahill had gotten a little confrontational himself. "I'll give you that Congresswoman Waters may have given you something for appeal that may lead to this entire trial being overturned," he told Chauvin's attorney (who made clear he thinks it's only one of the plausible appeal grounds).
Cahill added: "This goes back to what I've been saying from the beginning. I wish elected officials would stop talking about this case, especially in a manner that is disrespectful to the rule of law … [and not] consistent with their oath to the Constitution … . Their failure to do so I think is abhorrent … ."
Fine words. But with all that has unfolded, who can be entirely confident that these jurors were able to consider the decision before them with fully open minds, unclouded by fear of what "meaning business" might have meant for them personally had they returned anything other than a "guilty, guilty, guilty" verdict?
And yet, we must try to respect the rule of law and its procedures, even if our politicians don't.
On Tuesday morning, I posted a pre-verdict version of this column on Star Tribune Opinion, suggesting it might be useful to cast oneself as a metaphorical "13th juror" — if only to examine whether one has paid sufficient attention to the trial and the evidence to second-guess the actual verdict when it arrived. For what it is worth, and for the record, here is what I wrote:
"For my part I find myself prepared — were I going into deliberations — to be persuaded to convict Chauvin on the least serious of the three charges against him, manslaughter in the second degree. His failure in the final minutes of his restraint of George Floyd to recognize Floyd's dangerous distress and to provide medical aid rises to the level of 'culpable negligence' required by the statute.
"I'm unconvinced that the state proved 'beyond reasonable doubt' the deliberate infliction of harm or conscious creation of deadly danger required for the more serious murder charges. But Chauvin's dereliction of his duty to care for a person in his custody seems clear.
"The cause-of-death issue is a mess, and has been from the start. The formulation of Hennepin County Medical Examiner Andrew Baker that the whole overwhelming encounter with police 'was just more than Mr. Floyd could take by virtue of [his] heart conditions,' seems the soundest conclusion. But has the state proven 'beyond reasonable doubt' that it was the wholly indefensible portion of Chauvin's conduct that made the fatal difference, rather than the whole ordeal? I'm most convinced if, once again, the focus is on the failure to provide lifesaving aid."
The 12 ordinary jurors in this case saw things differently. And now the jury has spoken. All of us must respect the actual verdicts as we brace for reaction, and for the appeals.
D.J. Tice is at firstname.lastname@example.org.