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A few days before the jury convicted Derek Chauvin, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters told protesters in Minnesota that if he wasn’t convicted, they should “get more confrontational.”
Waters later told The Grio she was advocating nonviolent action: confronting the justice system, passing legislation and speaking up.
Judge Cahill denied a motion for a mistrial based on Waters’ comments, but indicated that they could be grounds for an appeal.
A resolution to censure Waters failed on party lines in the House.
Days before former police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder and manslaughter in the death of George Floyd, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., told protesters in Minnesota that if the defendant wasn’t convicted, they should "get more confrontational."
Republicans rebuked Waters for her remarks, saying she was inciting violence, although their censure motion failed along party lines. The trial judge, Peter Cahill, suggested Waters’ comments could be grounds for an appeal and called out elected officials for speaking out in a way that is disrespectful to the judicial branch.
Waters defended her comments in media interviews.
"No matter the criticism I get, no matter the judge who even went off about Maxine Waters, that’s all right by me," she told Joy Reid on MSNBC. "I will continue to do what I think is in the best interests of our people. I will continue to speak truth to power and I will continue to be an activist legislator."
We decided to look at Waters’ full remarks days before the verdict, the judge’s response and what they could mean for an appeal.
Waters spoke at an April 17 demonstration in Brooklyn Center, the Minneapolis suburb where residents had gathered to protest the recent death of Daunte Wright, a Black man, who was shot and killed by police officer Kim Potter, who is white. Potter later resigned.
Waters, who spoke for about 10 minutes, told the protesters that she came to stand with them and "speak truth to power" and call for police reform. She said:
"Despite the fact that we know that people of color have been killed too often, unarmed young men, in particular Black men, have been killed. We know that we are now coming to the end of the George Floyd trial, and that I suppose the closing arguments are going to be made on that case coming Monday. And we’re really just almost at the beginning of what is happening with our young man, Daunte Wright, who was killed, and that we have to persist in calling for justice.
"We have to let people know that we’re not going to be satisfied unless we get justice in these cases. And so I just could not sleep, I could not rest, I could not be satisfied without coming here to let the family know and the friends know and the people of this community know, and all those who have organized with justice know that I stand with you. And I am going to stand not only with you, but continue to fight in every way that I can for justice, for justice."
Waters called on Congress to pass police reform, a reference to the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. She then fielded questions. (We couldn’t tell from the YouTube video if the questions were coming from activists or reporters.) Here’s how the exchange went:
Question: "What needs to happen that is different this year than all the years before?"
Waters: "We’re looking for a guilty verdict, and we’re looking to see if all of the talk that took place and has been taking place after they saw what happened to George Floyd — if nothing does not happen, then we know that we’ve got to not only stay in the street, but we have got to fight for justice. But I am very hopeful, and I hope that we’re going to get a verdict that says guilty, guilty, guilty. And if we don’t, we cannot go away."
Question: "And not just manslaughter, right?"
Waters: "Oh, no, not manslaughter. No, no, no. This is guilty for murder. I don’t know whether it’s in the first degree, but as far as I’m concerned it’s first degree murder."
Question: "What should protesters do" if Chauvin isn’t convicted of murder?
Waters: "Well, we’ve got to stay on the street. And we have got to get more active. We’ve got to get more confrontational. We’ve got to make sure that they know that we mean business."
Chauvin was convicted of second-degree and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. He wasn’t charged with first-degree murder.
Waters didn’t explain what she meant by "confrontational" during her remarks in Brooklyn Center. Her spokesperson Marcus Frias pointed to subsequent interviews she gave to The Grio and "The ReidOut" on MSNBC in which she called for nonviolent action.
"I talk about confronting the justice system, confronting the policing that’s going on, I’m talking about speaking up," Waters told The Grio. "I’m talking about legislation. I’m talking about elected officials doing what needs to be done to control their budgets and to pass legislation."
On the day of closing arguments, Cahill criticized Waters’ remarks but denied a request for a mistrial.
"I'll give you that Congresswoman Waters may have given you something on appeal that may result in this whole trial being overturned," Cahill told defense attorney Eric Nelson.
Cahill said he was aware of Waters’ comments and then gave a broad rebuke.
"This goes back to what I have been saying from the beginning: I wish elected officials would stop talking about this case, especially in a manner that is disrespectful to the rule of law and to the judicial branch and our function. I think if they want to give their opinions, they should do so in respectful and in a manner that is consistent with their oath to the Constitution, to respect the coequal branch of government," Cahill said.
Cahill continued: "Their failure to do so, I think, is abhorrent, but I don't think it has prejudiced us with additional material that would prejudice this jury. They have been told not to watch the news. I trust they are following those instructions, and that there is not in any way a prejudice to the defendant. Beyond the articles that we are talking about specifically about the facts of this case, a congresswoman's opinion really doesn't matter a whole lot."
Legal experts have said they expect Chauvin’s defense to cite Waters’ comments in an appeal, but two law professors we spoke with said they doubted that the verdict would be overturned because of them.
Ted Sampsell-Jones, a professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, said the comments by Waters were "unfortunate," as were the pre-verdict comments about the case by President Joe Biden.
"But it is extremely unlikely that any of that will lead to a reversal of Chauvin’s conviction," said Sampsell-Jones, a former appellate criminal defense attorney. "Judge Cahill took reasonable measures, including repeated instructions to avoid media, careful and extensive questioning during (jury selection), and sequestration during deliberations. That will be enough to satisfy the appellate courts."
Sampsell-Jones said there’s always publicity in high-profile cases.
"A defendant is entitled to a fair trial, not a perfect trial," he said. "Finally, given the overwhelming evidence of guilt, appellate courts will conclude that adverse publicity didn’t affect the result. Even if Rep. Waters hadn’t made those statements, he’d still have been found guilty."
Joseph Daly, an emeritus professor at the Mitchell Hamline School whose expertise includes criminal law, said he found it "shocking" that a member of Congress would make such comments when the jury wasn’t sequestered. The judge sequestered the jurors after closing arguments.
But Daly said the court would want to hear evidence from jurors about if they heard her remarks and whether it had any impact.
"I don’t think that an appeals court would overturn these verdicts based on what Congresswoman Waters said, but I think they might say something about ‘She better be careful, she shouldn't be doing that,’" Daly said.
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MPR, Judge denies mistrial request over Rep. Waters' 'confrontational' comment, April 20, 2021
U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, Resolution about Rep. Waters, April 21, 2021
The Grio, Maxine Waters slams GOP attacks over ‘confrontational’ comment: ‘I am nonviolent’ April 19, 2021
The Reid Out on MSNBC, Interview with Rep. Maxine Waters, April 20, 2021
Factcheck.org, In Her Own Words: Maxine Waters, April 20, 2021
Fox News, Biden, Waters’ comments not ‘significant enough’ for appeal in Chauvin trial verdict: Sol Wisenberg, April 21, 2021
PolitiFact’s Truth-O-Meter, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, Accessed April 21, 2021
Telephone interview, Marcus Frias, U,S. Rep. Maxine Waters spokesperson, April 21, 2021
Email interview, Ted Sampsell-Jones, Mitchell Hamline School of Law professor, April 21, 2021
Email interview, Joseph Daly, Mitchell Hamline School of Law emeritus professor, April 21, 2021
Email interview, Brad Colbert, Mitchell Hamline School of Law professor, April 21, 2021