When Judge Peter Cahill read off three guilty verdicts in the trial of Derek Chauvin on Tuesday, much of the world took a collective exhale.
The former Minneapolis police officer — now guilty of second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter for the murder of George Floyd — is the first officer in Minnesota to be held accountable for killing a Black man, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
It had been a long year since a video of Chauvin pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck for eight minutes overtook the news of the pandemic and pushed crowds into the street in what would become the largest protest movement in U.S. history, with an estimated 15–26 million participants.
We know that a guilty verdict does not always equal what can be considered appropriate consequences.
Legal experts estimate this verdict means Chauvin could face up to 40 years in prison. But most Black people I know are still moving slowly to count Tuesday’s verdict as a win, hesitant to completely let go of the anxiety we’ve been holding onto so tightly. Rightfully skeptical, we know that, although it may feel like a step toward accountability, honestly, it’s too soon.
Across the country, it is extremely rare for a police officer to be charged with anything associated with an on-duty killing, and only a third are ever convicted of a crime. That number gets even smaller when looking at murder or manslaughter convictions — between 2005 and the middle of 2019, there were only four.
But, with these few cases fresh in the minds of all who have followed them, we know that a guilty verdict does not always equal what can be considered appropriate consequences.
In October 2018, former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was found guilty of second-degree murder for fatally shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald — plus 16 counts of aggravated battery for each of the 16 shots he fired into the teen as he walked away from police — becoming the city’s first officer to be convicted of murder in almost 50 years.
Yet, in January of the following year, Van Dyke was sentenced to only six years and nine months for the murder, with the judge, Vincent Gaughan, saying, “this is a tragedy for both sides.”
Van Dyke is expected to be released in February 2022 after serving half of his sentence. Prosecutors had asked for a sentence of at least 18 years.
And as always, Black people’s hesitation to get excited about Chauvin’s verdict ended up being a familiar coping mechanism. Just hours after the Chauvin verdict was read, Black people were dealt another quick blow: News broke that police in Columbus, Ohio, had killed another Black person — 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant — after she’d called police for help.