The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

It’s Wednesday, April 21, 2021.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

The Achievement of the Rule of Law and a Commitment to Justice: Jury Convicts Derek Chauvin in the Death of George Floyd

There’ve only been a few moments in American history in which so many people in the nation were focused upon television screens or computer monitors in order to see together the handing down of a verdict in a criminal court. This of course became a riveting experience a generation ago with the verdict that was handed down in the murder trial of OJ Simpson.

It was repeated in other contexts, but they are still rare, but yesterday represented one of those moments when millions upon millions of Americans singularly and in groups were watching together simultaneously the release of the jury verdict in the murder trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin on trial for three criminal charges in the death of George Floyd. We’re talking about a former Minneapolis police officer who was yesterday found guilty by a jury of his peers in Minneapolis of two counts of murder and one count of second-degree manslaughter.

Now, earlier in this process we pointed out that the rule of law means that there must be specificity in the criminal charges. The process whereby felony charges of this magnitude would be brought would include the fact that you would need not only a criminal investigation and the police officers involved, you would need to have a district attorney or the equivalent in the jurisdiction. You would almost assuredly need a grand jury who would eventually bring the indictment against the accused, and then you would need the entire process.

In the case of the trial of Derek Chauvin, there was unprecedented national interest. Of course, this goes back a matter of months to the death of George Floyd, he was a black man who was being arrested. It was a long process of arrest by multiple officers. There were about 16 minutes of attempted arrest. Then for nine infamous minutes, roughly measured, you had the video of officer Derek Chauvin whose knee was on the back of the neck of George Floyd.

Now, as you are looking at this case now and as we are thinking as Christians about the rule of law and the way the rule of law works, we now speak of the death of George Floyd officially as a murder. Because after all, a man has now been not only arrested and indicted, not only tried, but now convicted of two counts of murder related to his death. Now, one of the issues of the rule of law is that you have to have specific charges again, in this case, the specific charges were second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter.

Now, when you’re looking at degrees, it doesn’t have to do with the degree related to the victim. It has to do with the degree related usually to the indication of premeditation of the crime. And murder, of course, or homicide is a crime that leads to the death of another human being. And as humanity throughout the centuries has understood, there are no crimes so grave as homicide. That is affirmed in Scripture, in the Noahic covenant found in Genesis 9. In that passage, God makes clear the particularly heinous nature of the crime of homicide, because he links it to the fact that humanity is made in his own image.

And thus, we as Christians understand that even as the world around us considers homicide a serious crime, murder or homicide is considered by Christians and even graver assault upon humanity because it is an assault upon the given imago Dei. The nationwide controversy and indeed protest and unrest that arose given the fact that that video had emerged showing those minutes in which you had a police officer, in this case often identified as a white police officer, with the knee upon the back of the neck of a black man. This led to continuing controversy in the United States. And of course, a great deal of unrest in a nation that already had experienced a great deal of unrest on these issues.

And looking at least at the national conversation, there was no way to remove the racial issue from the larger conversation. But that takes us to another very important aspect of this trial and now this verdict. The rule of law says that in a case like this, the racial issues are not the primary issues. That indeed the issue that fell to this court, the responsibility that fell to this jury was to determine the facts of the case and the context of those facts in order to determine if the accused in this case, the defendant in this trial, Derek Chauvin was actually guilty specifically of the crimes that were charged against him.

As we often remind ourselves, the rule of law is one of the greatest achievements of human history. It is one of the essential pillars of civilization. It is one of the great achievements in particular of Western civilization, but the rule of law means that it has to be respected at every level. It has to be respected at the level of the police. It has to be respected just in terms of the status of the law and how those laws are formulated. And of course, when you’re looking at the United States, just to give our own example, the primary credibility of the laws are that they are produced in a legitimate way by the legislature and the government. They are applied in an equal and appropriate way by the authorities. There are just laws and they are to be administered justly. That is at the very foundation of the rule of law.

When there is a crime and thus there is a criminal proceeding, the rule of law says that it is not just a matter of coming to a quick judgment as to who was guilty and who was innocent, and then punishing the guilty. It requires that specificity of the indictment related to the specific crime. It requires a jury in most cases, but in any case, it requires a trial. And a trial process is a formal process, the goal of which is the achievement of justice and the determination of truth. In the trial process and Americans got to watch almost all of this trial in live broadcast and streaming video. The reality is that both sides in the case, the prosecution and the defense have the right to make the case to the jury.

There are rules by which this is undertaken. These are the minor rules of the larger reality of the rule of law and they have major consequence. You have the fact that the defendant in any trial, including in this trial has the right to establish a defense, has the right to legal counsel or an attorney. And also has the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty. That again is a part of the rule of law. As we have often sought to comment and explain the rule of law doesn’t exist as if it’s just posited in air. It doesn’t stand on its own. It has to stand on a cultural and moral foundation. It has to stand upon an understanding of an orderly civilization and a civilization or a society committed to that order. It requires respect.

Respect for the law, yes, but also respect for those who have the responsibility to apply and to enforce, to investigate and to adjudicate the law. It is a responsibility of the larger society. The rule of law means that when a criminal charge is brought against the defendant in the United States, it is brought against the defendant in the name of the people, the people of the county of this, the people of the state of that, the people of the United States of America for a federal crime. It is not an offense against the majesty of the king. We don’t have a king. It is not an offense just against another human being. Crimes understood in this case are a violation of the law of the society. And thus in the name of those of us who comprise the society, the criminal charges are brought.

So in the case of the trial of Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, it was on behalf of the people of Minneapolis that these charges were brought. And the charges were brought in this case and they were prosecuted by the attorney general of the state of Minnesota, that is Keith Ellison. And it was his responsibility at the request of the governor of the state to offer supervision of this entire process because of the political visibility and the moral volatility of the crimes alleged in this case and the trial of a man who, as we know, was at the time of the crime a police officer. Not just a police officer, but a training officer for the Minneapolis police.

It’s very important that we recognize that when Derek Chauvin was convicted of all three of these serious felony charges, he was convicted in the name of the people. It is also important to recognize that there will be a great deal of conversation about the fact that what took place in these guilty verdicts was if not unexpected, it was at least a bit unusual in American history. And why is that so? It is because when you are looking at a case like this, there are reasons why a police officer charged with these crimes might be able to offer a defense different than a civilian, that is a non-police officer in defending oneself against the very same crimes.

And that is because given the responsibility that is invested in the police, given the fact that the police often have to make split second decisions when it comes to the application of deadly force. Given the fact that just as this trial was held in the name of the people, the police are also understood to act on behalf of the people. There is a latitude, there is a possibility of legal defense for a police officer who in the line of duty is accused of this kind of crime.

Part II

Do We Really Believe in the American Project and the Rule of Law? The Importance of Respecting American Courts and Our System of Justice

But Derek Chauvin was found guilty and the jury did not deliberate as long as might have been expected in a similar case with the complexity of the facts and also the importance of the crimes. But the fact that the jury didn’t deliberate long probably had more to do with the fact that in the course of this particular trial, they were presented with what the jury had indicated was overwhelming evidence. What are we talking about here? What we’re talking about in the first place, video evidence.

But here’s where Christians thinking about the achievement of the rule of law and the application of justice understand that video is not enough. It turns out to be very important in this trial, but it is not on its own enough. And the reason for that is video can represent and it can misrepresent. Confusion over this can be very dangerous.

For example, one person in a tweet that got a great deal of attention months ago protested the very necessity of the trial saying, “So pathetic that there’s a trial to prove that Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd when there is video of him doing so.” Again, the tweet was straightforward. “So pathetic that there a trial to prove that Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd when there is video of him doing so.” But a video is not a trial. A video is not a jury. A video is not the opportunity to argue for or against moral or legal responsibility.

It did become critical evidence, uncontested that it was, but we have to understand that the trial was not something that was an unnecessary complication in the prosecution of this case. The trial is the great representation of the rule of law, where you find convictions without a trial, you find autocracy, a totalitarian government. You see the absence of the rule of law. Now what we saw take place in the trial of Derek Chauvin represents the fact that the video was important, but the video is not enough. Video comes from only one or if there are multiple videos, several perspectives. The video is not the same as being there. And of course, we’re also living in a time when videos can be altered.

Now, in the case of the videos that had to do with this trial, there was no accusation that they were altered, but they were not in themselves enough. In the course of the trial it is more likely that the key issue weighed by the jury and coming to the guilty verdicts in this case had to do more with the testimony that was revealed in the trial than the video itself. The testimony did add to the evidence of the video, but the reality is that in legal terms, the testimony became nearly overwhelming.

Most importantly, here, you had the fact that something extremely unusual in the history of American law took place. It’s not unprecedented, but it was very unusual. And that is that in this case, it may well be that the most important and compelling testimony against him came from the police chief of Minneapolis. It was the police chief who offered extensive testimony about the fact that Derek Chauvin was not following the guidelines and the policies of the Minneapolis police. There was other expert testimony and of course the defendant had the right to offer a defense. It’s also interesting that he exercised his Fifth Amendment right not to testify against himself and he did not serve as a witness. He did not speak at his own trial.

That in itself according to the rule of law is not an indication of guilt or have a not guilty condition. That is not the case when it comes to invoking one’s Fifth Amendment right. Because after all, that Fifth Amendment right is not to protect the guilty. It is to protect all citizens from being put in a position where there could be testimony that could invoke criminal charges. But what happened yesterday in Minneapolis is not the end of this story. And that again indicates the reality of the rule of law. There is in the rule of law in the American legal system, and opportunity for an appeal of a conviction. And of course, that appellate process will also come after sentencing and that sentencing hearing is not scheduled for another eight weeks after yesterday’s conviction.

Now here’s what’s important for Americans if we are committed to the rule of law. And as Christians we understand this is not just about an orderly society. It is about the achievement of justice. If we are honoring the rule of law, that it means at all, Americans understand that what took place yesterday was the result of a legitimate court process that involved a verdict handed down by a jury of fellow citizens, a jury of the defendant’s peers. This means that this jury and thus the court has come to a determination not only that these crimes were alleged, but these crimes as crimes had taken place and are now a matter of the legal record of the American people.

It also means that the American people have to understand all of us that as volatile as many of these issues are, the rule of law only works in a society of peace, in a society of order and mutual respect. And this means that even as Americans may disagree on any number of issues even related to this trial at this point. What is incumbent upon all American citizens and all people of goodwill is to respect the verdict of the court and to respect the process of the rule of law.

No doubt there will be further developments. There will be more hearings even related to this case and this trial that will be broadcasted live with all Americans able to watch. But we also need right now to pray for our nation. We need to pray for the city of Minneapolis. We need to pray for the state of Minnesota. We need to pray for the entire United States of America, because what we are engaged in right now is a great test as to whether we really believe in the American project, in the American constitutional order and in the rule of law. And the rule of law, let us remind ourselves applies not only in the courtroom, but in our neighborhoods and on the streets.

If the rule of law operates anywhere, it has to operate everywhere.

Part III

It’s Very Dangerous to Be a Retired Dictator: Vladimir Putin Sets Himself Up to Continue Autocratic Rule in Russia Until 2036 (or Longer)

But speaking about the rule of law, we need to direct our attention where the rule of law is glaringly absent. And here, I’m speaking about Vladimir Putin’s Russia. For example, Vladimir Putin already the longest serving leader who has ruled from the Kremlin since the Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin as the Washington Post reported, he has “signed a law allowing himself to remain in office until 2036 when he will reach the venerable age of 83.” And so the Russian president determined to stay in office. He’s already been in office so long. He basically is by some definitions a quasi-elected, non-quasi-dictator.

You’re looking at the fact that Vladimir Putin has now arranged for a change to the Russian constitution that will enable him to stay in office until 2036. Just think about it. By 2036, a baby born right now will be 15-years-old. Vladimir Putin himself will be 83. And you can count on this. If he has the political power, he will not give it up then. It is because when you are looking at being a dictator, it is very hard to be a retired dictator. In being a dictator in the terms and on the scale of Vladimir Putin, you have made so many enemies and in actual truth buried so many bodies that there are people who would never let you retire in peace. You have to stay in office if you want to stay alive. You have to keep on ruling if you want to keep on breathing.

But the absence of the rule of law is made glaringly apparent by the fact that this was not a legitimate constitutional change. And by the way, one of the observers of this change, this is the last elected mayor of Russia’s fourth largest city, Yekaterinburg. He said, “Next time, they will pass a law allowing the president to live forever.” That law would have just about as much legitimacy as the one that will allow him to remain office until 2036.

The point of all this was made graphically clear by Vladimir Kara-Murza, the Global Opinions contributor at the Washington Post who wrote, “Putin’s move was enabled by a series of constitutional amendments rammed through last summer under the cover of the pandemic buried among a bewildering array of amendments, 206 in total was a clause written in opaque, legalese that gives Putin a personal waiver from presidential term limits, allowing him to remain in the Kremlin past the end of his current and final mandate in May of 2024.” So much there to consider.

Putin’s current term, which was also the result of an election that no one has trust in, would end his term in May of 2024. The Russian constitution prior to this bizarre system of constitutional amendments would have brought his term to an end then. He would not have been able even to run to succeed himself. But of course, all that is now been changed. May 2024 will be coming pretty quickly, even if Vladimir Putin has no intention of relinquishing power then or probably at any point after then so long as he’s alive.

But you also noticed that when you’re talking about the constitutional amendment that supposedly gave him the ability to stay in office, it was, using the terms of this report again, “buried among a bewildering array of amendments, 206 of them.” Let’s just pause for a moment. What kind of constitution either allows for or needs 206 constitutional amendments at one time? That’s not an amendment to the constitution. Those are not amendments to the constitution. That’s an indication that the constitution is not actually operating. What you’re looking at here is window dressing, and really no one around the world believes that it’s real.

You’ll also note that in that phrase we are told that the clause that supposedly allows Vladimir Putin to remain in office was “written in opaque legalese.” Meaning that the people who voted insofar as they did vote probably didn’t even know they were voting on this. The next paragraph is also very interesting: “The Kremlin could have subjected this change to a real referendum, but there’s a good reason why Putin didn’t dare because he knew it wouldn’t likely have failed. Even in authoritarian Russia, where people are understandably hesitant to share political views with strangers, polls showed that the prospect of continued rule by Putin had support from only 48% of voters with 47% opposed. Under Russian law and Russia’s binding international obligations, a genuine referendum would have provided for clear ground rules an opportunity to campaign on both sides and independent observation. Given such conditions, the Kremlin was conspicuously unwilling to gamble on the outcome.”

It’s also interesting, by the way, to note that Putin himself defined the vote as a plebiscite. And that is a term that has a very interesting political history. It was actually often used by the fascist dictatorships of Europe in the 1920s and the 1930s. A certain dictator name should come to mind. This was not built as a referendum that would have required that kind of straightforward constitutional vote, which as the previous words had indicated would have required strict regulations for the election and international oversight. Vladimir Putin wanted none of that, none of those.

It’s also interesting to note that the 2020 constitutional amendments violated the constitution. Because the constitution itself says that it can only be amended with one constitutional amendment at a time. Remember the magic number 206. It was only off by 205. Sometimes when you’re looking at the importance of the rule of law, you see it by its presence sometimes by its absence. Sometimes you see it in a relatively small courtroom in a state like Minnesota. Sometimes you see it in a nation with a giant landmass of teeming millions of people, such as Russia. In any case, the absence or the presence of the rule of law makes all the difference.

Christians understand one further dimension of this as we come to a close and that is as we’re thinking about the rule of law, writ large as an entire nation or writ small as in the case of just one criminal trial, although a criminal trial of enormous importance. The reality is that Christians understand that the rule of law on Earth is actually intended to be an anticipation of the rule of law that is already present and is eternally true and just and righteous in heaven. And one day will be represented by the perfect justice and judgment of God. That’s actually reflected in the most famous prayer of the Christian faith with the words that Jesus taught his own disciples to pray. That is one reflection of the meaning of the phrase thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven.

The secular application of the rule of law is a matter of great consequence, but the heavenly application of the rule of law is of eternal consequence. And that too we must always keep in mind.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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