In journalism classes, students are told again and again: “Never … EVER … refer to someone as a ‘murderer’ or say a suspect ‘killed’ or ‘murdered’ the victim until he is convicted of the crime. Always used qualifiers such as ‘accused of murder’ and the like.”
This is solid advice. If a journalist calls a defendant a “murderer” in front of the world, and then the defendant is *acquitted*, the journalist and his publication have a nasty problem. The erstwhile defendant can sue their butts into bankruptcy for libel. All he must do is hold up the “murderer” article in one hand–which is now a blatant lie and aspersion, legally speaking–and the certificate from a court and a jury of his peers saying that he is NOT a murderer in the other hand. Game over.
That’s when the (former) journalist and his (insolvent) newspaper give the guy all their dollars and beg his pardon. As it turns out, the argument ‘But we all know he really did it!’ carries surprisingly little weight in a civil libel suit.
It’s appalling how many publications are printing and broadcasting that former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin “murdered” George Floyd, when a trial hasn’t even begun–appalling both because of the risk to the publications and because of the utter disregard for the presumption of innocence. It’s one thing to hold a firm opinion in one’s heart about Chauvin or to convict him of a crime in casual conversation with a friend; but quite another to state it to thousands of readers or millions of viewers.
Here’s the cherry so far, from Spiked writer Moses Dube in his article entitled–I kid you not–‘Why did nobody stop George Floyd’s murder?‘:
There is a very troubling issue at the heart of the brutal murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin which has received very little mention. Numerous people filmed the killing, while half a dozen people stood by to watch Chauvin compress a black man’s neck and spine with his knee for minutes after he had lost consciousness, eventually killing him….
Yikes! Is Dube a Russian roulette player? Are he and his editor–who REALLY ought to know better–secretly hoping to commit financial harakiri? ‘Precarious’ doesn’t even begin to describe the legal limb Dube has crawled out on here. The oddest part is, Dube could have made his overall point quite easily without the potentially libelous rant. It’s sloppy thinking and sloppier journalism.
Pundits are so focused on signaling breathless, pious outrage about the death of Floyd–lest an anti-halo of racism descend upon them and provoke cancellation by the mob–that they have forgotten to keep their facts straight and their butts covered.
Dube and the parachute-less skydiving journalist brigade might not have heard, but trials don’t always end as one expects. New medical evidence sometimes comes to light, or new videos demonstrating hitherto-unknown circumstances crop up. Sometimes a jury simply decides they don’t like the prosecutor and acquits the defendant out of spite–a distinct possibility with the politically toxic and simpering Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison in charge. At other times, inspectors mishandle evidence or an arrest, and the defendant gets set free on a technicality before jury selection even begins.
To give just one example, few members of the press and public dreamed a jury would acquit the LAPD officers who used their batons to subdue Rodney King in 1991. But the jury did acquit them–because the jury saw video the public never got to see. Similar twists in the George Floyd case could see Derek Chauvin set free. His exoneration may not appear likely; but it is far from impossible. Remember: the public haven’t even seen the body camera footage from the four police officers yet.
If Chauvin should walk free unconvicted, he will probably spend the rest of his life selecting the wealthiest publications who branded him a “murderer” who “killed George Floyd” and suing them one by one until he decides he has nowhere left to stack the pallets of free money. (Dube and Spiked probably would get lucky: neither have obviously deep pockets, and nobody really pays attention to what Spiked or Dube have to say.)
Remember Nick Sandmann, the MAGA-hat kid who sued CNN, the Washington Post, and a bunch of other organizations for defamation after they falsely characterized him on the news and in print as a racist delinquent? Sandmann has made bank with several large settlements already; but nothing that was said about Sandmann draws even close to the media’s characterization of Chauvin as ‘sadistic, bigoted murderer of a civil-rights saint’. The damages Chauvin would be able to show to his life, livelihood, and reputation dwarf Sandmann’s by orders of magnitude.
If Sandmann can sue CNN for $250 million … what could an exonerated Derek Chauvin expect? The figures boggle the mind.
I’m not going to go into the weeds and dissect Chauvin’s case, or take odds on his acquittal. Others with more knowledge of legal minutiae than I are on that job:
I will only observe as I close that the journalists and opinionators who are treating Chauvin’s guilt as a fait accompli for brownie points and self-protection are gifting Chauvin’s defense team a strong argument for dismissal, and one they will almost certainly make soon.
After all, how can any court guarantee Chauvin a fair and impartial trial, when every potential juror in the United States already has been told by opinion makers in no uncertain terms that Chauvin is already guilty?