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Why Police Usually Aren't Convicted In Murder Trials


As the Derek Chauvin trial gets underway in Minneapolis this week, prosecutors will be trying to accomplish something that happens only rarely in America - winning a conviction against a police officer charged in the killing of a civilian. Derek Chauvin is the former officer who knelt on the neck of George Floyd last May. He is facing two charges, and jury selection is currently delayed while a judge considers reinstating a third charge. Let's bring in Jamiles Lartey. He reports on issues of criminal justice and policing for The Marshall Project.


JAMILES LARTEY: Hey, I appreciate you having me.

KELLY: So how unusual is it for officers to be charged? How unusual is it for them to be convicted in police killings? What are the numbers here?

LARTEY: Yeah, it's a good question. It's difficult to quantify exactly. I mean, what we know is that roughly a thousand or 1,100 people are killed by police every year. And typically, it's less than - it's in, you know, the maybe double digits, single digits each year - the number of police who are tried. Believe it or not, the most common reason why police officers are actually tried for crimes and killings is traffic accidents, not for intentional uses of force. But yeah, it's typically in the - the single-digits convictions are even much more rare.

KELLY: Which brings us up to the specific case and trial that is going to be unfolding shortly in Minneapolis to do with Derek Chauvin. Now, we mentioned this trial is delayed for a day so far while the court considers whether to reinstate a charge of third-degree murder. Reinstating this third charge - how might that change the trial?

LARTEY: Well, it gives prosecutors another avenue. Prosecutors tend to give a whole series of charges that the jury can convict with. If you don't feel that the evidence has met the requirements for, you know, this top charge, you can consider this next one. So it's certainly fair to say the reinstatement of this charge would increase the likelihood of Chauvin being convicted of something.

KELLY: What will you be watching for when this trial does get underway in terms of what prosecutors will need to demonstrate to try to get a conviction from the jury here?

LARTEY: One of the main things I'll be watching for is just the volume of witnesses. There's been, I believe, something in the neighborhood of 500 witnesses listed between the prosecution and the defense. I think it'll be interesting to see who does and does not get called. And that will give us a sense of what the prosecution thinks its best line of attack is. Another thing to watch out for is just obviously all of the emotion and energy around the trial in Minneapolis and around the country - what this does to our national conversation, to our national energy around this question of race and policing.

KELLY: Do you see things changing? Do you see any kind of shift in terms of more police being charged or more convictions being won in these type incidents?

LARTEY: I think it's too early to say that. I think it's too early to make sort of direct comparisons. We're still in this moment. I don't even think it's fair to say that we are in a post-summer 2020 George Floyd protest moment. I think that moment persists right now. Certainly, what we can say is that a lot of jurisdictions, from the local level to the state level, have taken up some of these questions.

Broadly, what we've seen is three baskets of reforms. We've seen - in the aftermath of Breonna Taylor's death, we've seen a lot of energy around reforming the use of no-knock warrants. After George Floyd's death, we've seen a number of laws that are built around addressing chokeholds or carotid control holds or different types of holds that involve the neck or the upper back and restricting a person's windpipe. More generally, some of these laws have endeavored to address the broader systemic issues, like qualified immunity, that just apply to the profession at large.

KELLY: Jamiles Lartey of the nonprofit news organization The Marshall Project.

Thank you very much.

LARTEY: I appreciate you having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.