Trauma and the Chauvin Trial

Alexis Yeboah (l) sits with Mary Moriarty outside the the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis, where the Derek Chauvin trial was held. Photo Sarah Whiting

Monday, May 25, 2020 is cemented into the psyche of many, particularly us Black Minnesotans. That day and the events that followed will continue to be discussed, analyzed, and dissected in different pedagogies to draw through lines from the happenings of that day to the complex labyrinth of systems many had refused to see. The murder of George Floyd was an unrelenting truth and constant for many Black people, but it was the first time I felt white people — especially white Minnesotans — got a first-hand, unadulterated peek into our lived truth.

During the trial of Derek Chauvin, Mary Moriarty, a lawyer in Hennepin County for over 30 years, saw the gap in legal understanding between the larger audience and court proceedings. Moriarty is bringing her expertise as a former chief public defender and community resident to the public discourse. She is also open and willing to learn, listen, and hear Black people — understanding that lived experience trumps professional practice.

On June 29, 2021, Judge Peter Cahill sentenced Derek Chauvin to prison for 22.5 years, which is a longer (aggravated) sentence due to a number of factors the prosecution identified, such as Chauvin abusing his position as a police officer and inflicting particular cruelty on Floyd. However, in his sentencing memo, Judge Cahill dismissed the aggravating factor about children being present. He wrote, “Although the State contends that all four of these young women were traumatized by witnessing this incident, the evidence at trial did not present any objective indicia of trauma.”

Alexis Yeboah: Can you explain what “objective indicia of trauma” means? Trauma is something we hear about, but it is often not defined and taken out of context. It makes me think about Cahill’s comment about how the girls were laughing and smiling during the video. [“[Witnesses] are observed smiling and occasionally even laughing over the course of the several minutes they observed [officers] restraining Mr. Floyd prone on Chicago Avenue.”] He takes the perspective that obviously they cannot be traumatized because they are laughing and smiling.

You brought this up in your [Spokesman-Recorder] article, writing, “When trying to process a traumatic event, human beings exhibit emotions which may seem incongruous, but are completely normal given the circumstances.” Just because someone is exhibiting certain outward emotions, it does not mean they are not going through a trauma at the same time. What is your reaction to Cahill’s response?

Mary Moriarty: Let’s go back to what [Judge Cahill] was actually analyzing. The prosecution asked for a sentence that was greater than what the guidelines called for because of five aggravating factors. Chauvin had the right to have the jury determine whether those [factors] had been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and he decided to give up that right and have Cahill decide. Now, in terms of trauma, the prosecution could not have offered evidence in the case about trauma because that would not have been relevant in the trial itself. So, [both the prosecution and defense] submitted memos to Cahill about why they thought each of those five [aggravating] factors did or didn’t exist. Cahill decided that four of them had been proven beyond reasonable doubt.

The [aggravating factor] about children being present actually does not say anything about trauma. There is no requirement that anybody has to prove trauma. And I think the law probably presumes that children who witness certain events will probably be traumatized. It doesn’t say “children were present and they were traumatized.” When you look at Cahill’s response, he says you did not spend much time talking about trauma and did not offer any other evidence. If I were looking at this from the prosecution’s perspective, I would think that anyone who saw [the murder] would be traumatized.

I think about Darnella Frazier’s testimony, which was the most heartbreaking testimony in the entire trial. When she was asked [by the defense] if this changed her life, she said yes. And he [Chauvin’s lawyer] didn’t ask any more questions, it was kind of like he left it hanging as though this was a good thing for her. And then the State said, “Well Darnella, how did this impact your life?” And this is when we heard about how she is up many nights praying and apologizing to George Floyd for not having done more. It was pretty astonishing to me that anyone can view that and think the person wasn’t traumatized.

The law doesn’t say there has to be indications of trauma [for the presence of children to be considered an aggravating factor], but Judge Cahill went on to talk about laughing and smiling and that says to me he doesn’t understand the trauma. It makes me think of the book “The Body Keeps the Score.”

AY: I have that book. I go back to it often.

MM: When I read his memo, I thought that he doesn’t understand trauma if he thinks that is some kind of indication [that] they weren’t traumatized. Then he referred to those present as “young women” and I don’t understand referring to a nine-year-old as a young woman. All this is especially tied together with the adultification of Black youth. This was a good example in a high-profile case of how a judge was unconsciously relying on stereotypes. Even in the medical field, doctors and nurses medicalize the pain of Black people including children less than other [demographics]. Working in the field of law for 30 years, I think about how judges, prosecutors, and probation officers don’t understand the field of trauma. We don’t have enough good treatment programs or counseling.

AY: As someone without a legal background, who works in health care, I think a lot about public health and how it is part of so many pieces of our society, especially related to the criminal justice system. I think about the long-term health ramifications of trauma. I think about how often trauma, chronic trauma, precedes terrible health outcomes. We live in a state that has the worst health disparities in the country, and trauma can feed into that.

The old white guard gets to define what trauma is, and that quickly snowballs into who gets chemical dependency treatment or who gets health care because how people exhibit their trauma doesn’t fit into that white framework.

I think about how harmful it is for Cahill to use trauma as a prerequisite for committing this crime in front of a minor, and he brought this in to reinforce his stereotypical views.

MM: Yes. I think this was the biggest trial Minnesota has ever had, and it was televised and accessible on social media. The documents used in the case are public. In a case like this, which is so high-profile, those types of assumptions and mistakes could be really damaging.

I was really pleased to see the attorney general [Keith Ellison] send him a letter. Ellison asked Cahill to correct some assumptions he made about trauma and stereotypes about Black girls. Ellison included a declaration from the expert board-certified psychologist in adolescent trauma [Dr. Sarah Vinson]. She concluded the three seconds of smiling and laughter were probably stress relief. And then she went on to talk about the type of stress you would face if you were a Black girl watching a white officer kill a Black man.

I thought it was a wonderful opportunity for Cahill to take a step back to say, “you’re right, I did make some assumptions I didn’t intentionally mean to make.” But he instead reacted in a way a lot of Minnesotans react when introduced to the idea of race, [which is to] lash out.

Cahill wrote, “It is the State that is injecting supposed racial presumptions in this case, not this Court.” It was a missed opportunity to step up. [The Court ultimately did not change the Sentencing Memorandum Opinion regarding trauma. Cahill wrote in his response to Ellison: “Whether ‘adultification’ of ‘Black girls’ is, as the State insists, ‘common in American society, including in the criminal justice system,’ this Court emphatically rejects the implication that it played any part in the Court’s sentencing decision.”]

AY: Exactly, and [Cahill] stated that it wasn’t the Court’s intention to send a message. But he did send a message. From your perspective, does intention matter with his comments?

MM: No.

AY: We have the tension between intention and impact happening here, it doesn’t actually matter if that wasn’t your intention. It was your impact. You did mischaracterize their trauma; you did perceive these Black girls as adults; you did send a message about race. From the Court’s eyes, is that something that even matters?

MM: Yes, it should. He knows that everything he does in this case will be scrutinized and watched. It happens frequently in Minnesota, especially those who consider themselves to be progressive. They often go to their intent because it is kind of like, “Wait, I am a good person, I didn’t mean to.” But that dismisses the person’s experience. Intent matters to the person who is called out. It does not matter at all to the person who has the impact. Here is the problem: no one knows what his intent is. We can see what he wrote, and what he wrote was wrong. What we need to start doing is thinking, “Okay, I know I didn’t intend this, but what is the impact?” Acknowledge it and do better. This could have been a model of how to take responsibility for other people in authoritative positions.

AY: In Minnesota, we could not get through the Chauvin trial without the cops killing someone else — Daunte Wright. This comes back to our earlier conversation about trauma and constantly seeing Black people murdered by law enforcement. With Cahill’s comments about the indication of trauma, I think there is a larger conversation about these types of cases bringing trauma to the forefront of our consciousness and seeing how invasive it is. It is invasive but also invisible. Cahill didn’t even know what trauma is, but he didn’t think it was there. As our society moves forward, there needs to be a larger conversation about how trauma ties in with criminal justice, public health, and disparities in education and housing. I think this is also a byproduct of this trial. We have almost a whole state of people who are traumatized not only by seeing this but by living through it. This is going to be studied for a long time.

I didn’t expect Chauvin to even get convicted and definitely not close to the maximum sentencing. Even though his sentencing was unheard of for a cop, it still didn’t feel like enough. There is so much shaping of the legal and criminal justice system moving forward. What do you think some of the biggest impacts of this trial are going to be?

MM: Many in our community, especially within the Black community, had absolutely no expectation that he would be convicted of anything, right until the verdict was heard. It was an interesting position for me to be in as a lawyer who has practiced for 31 years. I thought the evidence in the case was overwhelming.

AY: Exactly, that’s how I felt. I didn’t believe he was going to be convicted; no one in my family believed he was going to be convicted. As Black people we’ve lived this since our time in this country. And we’ve seen it over and over and over and for people to tell us what we’ve seen and experienced is not true. “Of course he’s going to be convicted, like why wouldn’t he?” [Police killings of Black people] have happened countless times and nobody has ever been held accountable or brought to any semblance of justice.  

I felt like the country almost had to burn down to get this verdict. So much has to be done to get this place. What would have happened if the uprisings had never occurred or if Darnella Frazier hadn’t recorded it? There’s so many what ifs, it was the perfect storm. So many times, there is not the perfect storm. Keith Ellison said something to the effect of “this isn’t justice.” Which is true. This is [as] far as the semblance of justice can go.

MM: My takeaways are, there was a conviction on all counts which I think was very big. But I don’t think we can ignore the fact that this was a highly unusual set of circumstances. First, the case being moved to the Attorney General. And the AG gathered this team of over 12 volunteers to work on the case. They had some of the best experts I’d ever seen, they were spectacular. It was very well prepared. It could be a blueprint on how to run a case like this in the future. However, this was not a typical case where a cop shoots someone, someone dies, the cop had to make a split second decision and a jury feels like they can’t second guess the cop’s split second decision. Typically, there’s not nine and half minutes of Chauvin having all of this time to do something different. I view this simply as a first step. 

Recommended Reading

  • MN Attorney General Keith Ellison’s letter to Judge Peter Cahill
  • Judge Peter Cahill’s response
  • “Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration, and a Road to Repair,” by Danielle Sered
  • “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma,” by Bessel van der Kolk