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White cops have been convicted of killing a Black person before, but it's rare

Javonte Anderson, USA TODAY
·5 min read
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For many, the conviction of Derek Chauvin on Tuesday for the killing of George Floyd last May was a watershed moment that drove millions of people into the streets to celebrate the verdict while continuing to protest police brutality and racism.

In a nationwide address after the verdict, President Joe Biden called the decision “much too rare” and detailed how it took a “unique and extraordinary convergence of factors” for the judicial system to deliver “basic accountability.”

Indeed, there is little historical precedent for the conviction of a white police officer for killing a Black person, though there have been a few such verdicts in the past several years. Bernard Lafayette, who was on the front lines of civil rights protests in the 1960s in Selma, Birmingham and other Alabama cities, can recall none from his days in the movement.

"Police just weren't punished in that era, that wasn't even really considered in those days," he said. "We were fighting for the right to vote, equality and other civil rights."

Derek Chauvin is led out of the courtroom in handcuffs April 20 after he was declared guilty in the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Derek Chauvin is led out of the courtroom in handcuffs April 20 after he was declared guilty in the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Drawn back through American history is a line of Black bodies that experienced police brutality since before the days of Jim Crow: from Botham Jean back to a Seattle case in 1938 that is among the earliest examples on record of white officers sentenced to prison for killing a Black man. Here is a look at some of those cases:

Botham Jean

One of the more bizarre police-involved shootings occurred in September 2018 when Dallas police officer Amber Guyger entered a Black man’s apartment and fatally shot him.

Although Guyger wasn’t on duty when she killed Botham Jean, she had just finished her shift for the Dallas Police Department and was still in uniform.

More: Ex-Dallas cop Amber Guyger appeals murder charge in death of neighbor Botham Jean

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Guyger, who lived in the same apartment complex, testified that she mistook Jean’s apartment for her own and thought he was an intruder. Guyger was sentenced to 10 years in prison after a jury found her guilty of murder.

Damon Grimes

A teenager riding an all-terrain vehicle crashed and died in August 2017 after a Michigan state trooper fired his Taser at him during a police chase.

The trooper, Mark Bessner, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to five to 15 years in prison in 2019, nearly two years after the fatal incident.

Former Michigan state trooper Mark Bessner was sentenced to prison for shooting Damon Grimes with a stun gun while the boy fled police on an ATV traveling 35-40 mph.
Former Michigan state trooper Mark Bessner was sentenced to prison for shooting Damon Grimes with a stun gun while the boy fled police on an ATV traveling 35-40 mph.

Bessner and another state police officer were chasing Damon Grimes, 15, who was riding an ATV in a Detroit neighborhood. Bessner, who was in the passenger seat of the police vehicle, pulled out his Taser and fired it at Grimes.

The teenager crashed into the back of a parked truck and flew off the ATV. He died a short time later from his injuries.

Laquan McDonald

Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times in October 2014 as he walked away from police while holding a knife.

Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm, one for each shot fired at the Black teenager. Van Dyke was sentenced to 6¾ years in prison.

After public outcry over the length of the prison term, the Illinois state attorney general pushed to get Van Dyke a stiffer sentence. The Illinois Supreme Court voted against ordering a new sentence. Van Dyke is scheduled to be released from prison next year.

Walter Scott

Walter Scott, 50, an unarmed Black man, was shot repeatedly in the back as he ran away from an officer in April 2015. With both feet planted on the ground, the officer fired eight shots, hitting Scott five times.

The fatal encounter began as a routine traffic stop. Michael Slager, 33, a North Charleston, South Carolina police officer, stopped Scott for a broken brake light.

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Scott fled the car, and when Slager caught up to him, the two struggled over the officer's Taser. Scott broke free from the skirmish. A bystander's cellphone video captured what happened next – an unarmed Black man running away from an officer as a barrage of bullets were fired into his back.

Even that wasn't enough for immediate justice.

Slager was tried on a charge of murder in state court in 2016. A mistrial was declared after the jury could not reach a unanimous decision. Slager pleaded guilty to a single federal civil rights charge, which avoided another trial and left his sentencing to a judge.

In December 2017, a federal judge sentenced Slager to 20 years in prison.

Judge David Norton concluded Slager committed murder, saying he "acted out of malice and forethought, shooting dead an unarmed and fleeing Walter Scott."

Slager apologized to the Scott family the day he was sentenced.

"Walter Scott is no longer with his family, and I am responsible for that," he said. "I wish this never would have happened."

Berry Lawson

On March 26, 1938, three policemen approached a young African American waiter sleeping in the lobby of the hotel where he worked. Less than an hour later, he was dead.

Berry Lawson had just finished a late-night shift at the hotel when three Seattle police officers awakened him.

The officers testified that Lawson “jumped up fighting,” so they arrested him, according to the Northwest Enterprise, a Seattle-based weekly newspaper that served the Black community.

The officers claimed that Lawson was fatally injured when he tumbled headfirst down a flight of stairs after being arrested.

Witnesses told a different story, alleging the officers beat Lawson in the hotel lobby. He and a woman who also was arrested at the hotel were taken to a police station, where two officers isolated Lawson and beat him to death, according to the Enterprise.

The police officers – F.H. Paschal, W.F. Stevenson and P.L. Whalen – were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The officers’ attorney’s appealed the decision, but the Supreme Court upheld their convictions.

The Supreme Court determined that the officers “used more force than was necessary in taking Lawson into custody,” according to the Enterprise.

The unprecedented civil rights victory was short-lived. Washington’s governor, Clarence Martin, pardoned all three officers less than a year after the Supreme Court decision.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Systemic racism, history allows police brutality against Black people