There is something cinematic about the trial of ex-policeman Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd. From its opening, Monday, March 29 in Minneapolis, one of the prosecutors presented in its entirety the video, filmed by a young passer-by, of the agony of more than nine minutes of the 46-year-old African-American, under the knee of the white policeman on May 25 in Minneapolis. Cornerstone of the prosecution, the video was then replayed extract by extract to accompany the interrogations. The very one where we hear him repeat “I can not breathe”, before losing consciousness.
Going viral, these images had sparked a historic wave of protests across the country, helping to make Floyd’s death a symbol of police brutality against blacks in the United States. “You can believe your eyes: it’s homicide, it’s murder”, insisted prosecutor Jerry Blackwell in his opening statement.
No less than seven other videos of the scene, filmed by other witnesses, were also introduced as evidence by the prosecution. During this first week of trial, prosecutors also presented the jurors with CCTV footage on the street or inside the Cup Foods convenience store, where Floyd is seen chatting with customers and buying cigarettes before going. leave without incident, a few minutes before his fatal arrest. It was there that he allegedly sold a fake $ 20 bill, leading one of the employees to contact the police.
“Do not pull !”
Finally, videos from police bodycams, these cameras attached to the officers’ uniforms at chest level, including that of Derek Chauvin, were also broadcast. We see the police approaching Floyd, sitting at the wheel of his car. “Do not pull !”, he implores in tears, while one of them targets him with his weapon, without having explained to him the reason for his arrest. Floyd appears confused, panicked. He is handcuffed and resists entering the police vehicle, repeating that he is claustrophobic.
The same scene again, this time from the police point of view: he is pinned to the ground, the officers sitting on him to immobilize him. Out of breath, after having summoned his mother, George Floyd is silent and then stops. “I think he lost consciousness”, said one of the policemen. When another affirms that he does not perceive any pulse, Derek Chauvin, indifferent, maintains his position. One of the prosecution witnesses, a 61-year-old passer-by, broke down in tears on Wednesday at the footage. He is not the only one: during the first week of the trial and especially in front of these striking videos, many witnesses sobbed. A member of the jury became unwell and had to be absent for a while, putting the proceedings on hold.
Taken end to end, these images show, from all angles, on either side of the police vehicle, very close to Floyd’s body or from the sidewalk, the minutes leading up to his arrest, until his loss of life. awareness and the arrival of help. Like fields-contrechamps, these videos present an extremely effective reconstruction of the scene. Whose actor and spectator has found himself, at one point this week, in the courtroom in Minneapolis.
Mise en abyme
Reinforcing the visual mise en abyme, the hearings of the Chauvin trial are broadcast live on television, a first for a trial in Minnesota, the coronavirus pandemic requires. The public can therefore attend the interrogations remotely, but also have access to the same images as the jurors: they are directly embedded in the video stream of the court. Prosecutors use effects on videos – zooms out or in, broadcast shot by shot, the possibility for witnesses to highlight certain details via a touch screen, etc.
“Ten years ago, it was rare for a court case to present video evidence, beyond a statement by the accused, recalled in 2016 the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), a public agency of the US Department of Justice. Today, with the increased use of security cameras by businesses or homeowners, on-board cameras in patrol cars or cars [fixées sur les uniformes] police forces, and those filmed by public smartphones, it becomes on the contrary unusual to see a trial which does not include video evidence ”, present according to estimates “In at least 80%” criminal cases in the United States. The BJA emphasizes the potential “Extremely powerful” of this video evidence.
In recent decades, US courts’ use of such video evidence has grown exponentially. “Imagine the number of videos that will be presented as evidence during the trials of participants in the assault on the Capitol”, remarks Neal Feigenson, professor of law at the University of Quinnipiac. “They have become very important in many court cases, especially those concerning the excessive use of force by police officers against black men ”, according to the scholar, whose research focuses on the use of visual and multimedia evidence in courts and their impact on court decisions.
Précédent Rodney King
The first such case, with a video at the heart of a police brutality case, dates back to 1991 and the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers. The scene had been filmed on a camcorder by a neighbor, alerted by the noise. “Since then, cameras of all kinds have proliferated, which means that it is more than likely that there are not one, but several videos of such scenes.”, explains Neal Feigenson.
There has been no shortage of examples in recent years. The death of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old African-American killed by a policeman on a subway platform in Oakland in 2009, was filmed by several cell phones, including passengers. That of Philando Castile, a 32-year-old African-American killed in 2016 during a traffic stop in Minnesota, was captured by the on-board camera of the vehicle of the police officer who shot him, and the scene, filmed by the companion de Castile, by his side in the car, and posted on Facebook. That same year, the death of Terence Crutcher, a 40-year-old African American in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was captured from an overhead police helicopter and by the onboard cameras of three police cars.
Boston University law professor Jessica Silbey calls “Evidence truth” (truth evidence) these video elements and their use in American courts, which have “Tendency to take precedence over all other forms of evidence, testimony or documents”, she wrote in a 2010 article. It’s a double-edged sword for verdicts that must be obtained unanimously by the popular jury.
Reinterpretation of the facts
“What different people see in the same video depends on their previous beliefs and attitudes, note Feigenson. And the video itself may be subject to reinterpretation by the opposing party ”. During the LAPD police trial in the Rodney King case in 1992, a defense expert replayed the video of the beating shot by shot. Justifying each strike of a stick, kick or punch by the police, as being the adequate response, and in accordance with the rules of the police, with the gestures “Threatening” the King.
“What different people see in the same video depends on their previous beliefs and attitudes. And the video itself may be subject to reinterpretation by the opposing party. ”
— Neal Feigenson, Professor of Law at the University of Quinnipiac
“The proliferation of this video evidence has changed criminal prosecutions, generally in a very positive way, resumes Neal Feigenson. Starting with the fact that these cases, which would not have existed in the absence of video evidence, are now taken seriously, to the point of being the subject of more detailed investigations, sometimes leading to indictments, therefore to trials and sometimes convictions. ” The very existence of these documents acts outside the courts, generating some political pressure on prosecutors to investigate, indict and bring to justice. “But they can also worsen the disconnect between the general public and the verdict that the justice system delivers at the end”, Feigenson recognizes.
Video or not, police convictions are extremely rare in the United States. The officers who beat up King were acquitted. “The juxtaposition between the horrible scene filmed by a camcorder and the acquittal, by the jurors, of the police officers, was a catalyst for the riots in Los Angeles in 1992”, recalls the historian Felicia Angeja Viator, professor at San Francisco State University, in an article published in early March by the Washington Post.
These videos made it possible to “Garner an unprecedented level of care and compassion for victims of police violence, she writes. But that was not enough to guarantee significant changes ” in the American legal system. Three decades later, “The deaths at the hands of the police are frequently filmed”, more “The existence of video evidence has ceased to inspire high hopes for the police to be held to account”, she regrets. The policeman who gave Eric Garner a strangulation key, who died a few minutes later, in 2014 in New York, has not even been charged. He was only dismissed from the police, five years after the incident. The one who killed Philando Castile was charged with manslaughter and then acquitted. The videos of these brutalities, as precise, multiple and overwhelming as they are in the eyes of the general public, are in no way a guarantee of conviction.
The trial of Derek Chauvin will even be entitled to a flashback. On the eve of the opening of the hearings, the defense got the judge to authorize him to discuss a 2019 confrontation between George Floyd and the Minneapolis police. A victory for the lawyers of Chauvin, who want to convince the jurors that Floyd died of an overdose of opiates and not asphyxiated by the police officer. To show the African American’s attitude and physical condition, they are expected to present in the next few days a two-minute video clip of his arrest at the time, captured by police bodycams.