US President Joe Biden has said the conviction of a former police officer in the killing of George Floyd « can be a giant step forward in the march toward justice in America ».
White officer Derek Chauvin was filmed kneeling on African-American Mr Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, sparking mass protests against racism. He was found guilty on Tuesday of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter.
Sentencing is likely to happen in two months, and Chauvin could spend decades in jail. He is expected to appeal against the verdict.
In a phone call with Mr Floyd’s family after the verdict was announced, the president was heard saying: « At least now there is some justice. » In televised remarks shortly afterwards, Mr Biden said that such a verdict was « much too rare ». « We can’t leave this moment or look away thinking our work is done. We have to look at it as we did for those nine minutes and 29 seconds, » he said.
Vice-President Kamala Harris urged lawmakers to pass the George Floyd bill aimed at reforming policing in the US. « This bill is part of George Floyd’s legacy. This work is long overdue, » she said.
People gathered outside the courtroom and on the intersection in Minneapolis where Mr Floyd was killed to celebrate the verdict. Cheers broke out, drivers honked their car horns and people blocked traffic chanting: « George Floyd » and « All three counts », referring to the three charges of which Chauvin was convicted. « It’s a good day in Minneapolis, » said 21-year-old Kenneth Nwachi. « It’s a blessing. »
One local resident told the Associated Press news agency she felt grateful and relieved, while another said: « There’s some form of justice that’s coming. » Crowds also gathered in other cities to celebrate the verdict. But they also said that more needed to be done.
Police officers have rarely been convicted – if they are charged at all – for deaths that occur in custody, and the verdict in the trial has been widely seen as an indication of how the US legal system will treat such cases in future.
At a family news conference, Mr Floyd’s younger brother Philonise said: « Today, we are able to breathe again. »
The Floyd family’s lawyer, Ben Crump, said the conviction marked a « turning point in history » for the US. « Painfully earned justice has finally arrived, » he tweeted.
Chauvin’s defence team has not yet commented on the verdict, but is expected to appeal. According to reports, one of the most likely avenues of appeal is the huge publicity given to the case, with the defence team arguing that this might have influenced the jury.
Also, Presiding Judge Peter Cahill said on Monday that public comments by Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters could be grounds for an appeal.
Over the weekend, Ms Waters had urged protesters to « stay on the street » and « get more confrontational » if Chauvin was acquitted.
US defence lawyer Mark Geragos called the conviction a « preordained conclusion », telling Fox News that « given the tsunami of coverage and public consternation, the best he ever could have hoped for was a hung jury ».
It took the 12-member jury less than a day to reach their verdict.
Chauvin, whose face was obscured with a coronavirus mask, showed little reaction as the verdict was read, remaining quiet and looking around the room. His bail was revoked and he was led out of the courtroom with his hands cuffed behind his back. The verdict followed a highly charged, three-week trial in which 45 witnesses took the stand and several hours of video footage were shown.
Several witnesses broke down in tears as they watched graphic footage of Mr Floyd’s death and described feeling « helpless » as events unfolded. Expert witnesses on behalf of the state testified that Mr Floyd died from a lack of oxygen due to the manner of restraint employed by Chauvin and his colleagues. Chauvin himself chose not to testify, invoking his right to not incriminate himself with his responses.