Derek Chauvin can get 'qualified immunity' like cops involved in Minnesota Black man Jerome Harrell's death
With fervent protests continue across the United States and the world, over George Floyd's death in police custody, there has been increased scrutiny on how the court will handle the case of the 46-year-old's Memorial Day death by four former police officers in Minneapolis. There has been rising speculation on whether Derek Chauvin, the former cop who kneeled on Floyd's neck for over seven minutes, might get "qualified immunity". Similar cases in the region, like that of Jerome Harrell, might provide some insight into the eventual verdict.
Jerome Harrell, a 22-year-old Black man, died in police custody in February 2012 in Stearns County Jail, Minnesota. Harrell was an aspiring model and actor and was taking classes at the Minneapolis Technical Community College. He wanted to serve in the military, however, a traffic warrant stood in the way of his goal. Minneapolis police, a year before his death, had issued him a citation for not having proof of insurance. Harrell had forgotten about the citation until he decided to join the military in 2012. In an attempt to settle the traffic warrant, he decided to go to Stearns County Jail and never walked out.
The officers at the police station arrested Harrell and put him in a jail cell. However, the college-goer started exhibiting strange behavior at night, he "scream(ed), howl(ed), and bang(ed) against his cell door for eight hours," the court noted. The next morning, correctional officers attempted to remove him from the cell, but he resisted, which led to the officers tasing him twice, handcuffing him, shackling his legs and pinning him to the floor face down for at least three minutes. When they eventually turned him around, he was no longer responsive. The staff could not revive him and he was later pronounced dead at a hospital. Harrell died within five minutes of the officers entering his jail cell.
Harrell's official autopsy report described the incident as a "sudden unexpected death during restraint." However, the Harrell family's lawyer, Kenneth Udoibok, then hired his own expert from Arizona, who declared the aspiring actor's death a "homicide," adding that he was suffocated to death. The family then filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit against the county and the lawyer revealed that Harrell's strange behavior in the jail cell was because of Excited Delirium Symptoms (EDS). Medical experts hired by the attorney testified in court saying people often get EDS in jail cells, and that the condition can result in hallucinations, anxiety, and extreme swings in body temperature. The lawyer argued that Harrell was not given proper medical attention and that the officers' neglect led to his client's death, however, he eventually lost the suit in Minneapolis after a judge ruled for the county. Judge Richard H. Kyle ruled that the force used by officers was not objectively unreasonable and stated that officers were entitled to qualified immunity in the case.
"Qualified immunity" is a judicially created doctrine that shields police officers from being held personally liable for constitutional violations, like the right to be free from the excessive police force. "Harrell was actively resisting the extraction procedure by ignoring directives to lie down on his bunk and resisting the defendants' efforts to subdue him once they entered his cell," the court said. "We, therefore, conclude that the defendants are entitled to qualified immunity on the trustee's excessive force claim."
After the disappointing ruling, Udoibok later appealed the court decision to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, where the court overruled the judge in Minneapolis and sent the case back. Nearly five years after Harrell's death, the case was eventually settled in 2017 and none of then officers involved were charged.
There are multiple similarities in Harrell and Floyd's case. Floyd, an unarmed Black man, was killed in police custody after Chauvin kneeled on his neck for over seven minutes while Floyd complained that he could not breathe. Other officers also pinned him down to the ground until he became unresponsive. A leading critic of qualified immunity and UCLA law professor Joanna Schwartz, commented on Floyd's case saying his family "would have to find cases in which earlier defendants were found to have violated the law in precisely the same way," according to the Washington Post.
While director of communications at the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, Brett Kittredge, recently, while talking to the Vicksburg Post, suggested that because of qualified immunity "Floyd's family would likely have their claims against the officers dismissed because there isn't a case in the 8th Circuit…or the U.S. Supreme Court specifically holding that it is unconstitutional for police to kneel on the neck of a handcuffed man for nine minutes."