Chauvin Verdict and Digital Evidence

The AI Team at the Center for International Human Rights strongly supports the guilty verdict issued by the jurors in the trial of Derek Chauvin in Minnesota on April 20, 2021. One of the functions of a criminal justice system in a democratic society is to uphold the rule of law through, in part, holding accountable those who choose to break the law and contribute to the destruction of the social fabric. As we noted in our statement last year,“[t]he basic parameters and priorities of political and socio-economic life are in need of critical reexamination and assessment in order to ensure a more inclusive social order.”

Accountability, while welcome, is not however, justice, which serves a restorative function. There is much work yet to be done to restore justice to the family of George Floyd and black and brown Americans not only in terms of US civil rights, but fundamental human rights of non-discrimination, racial equality, equal protection and freedom from torture guaranteed under international human rights law (Universal Declaration of Human Rights Articles 5–11).

The verdict is also an opportunity to re-examine some of the factors underlying the systemic racism in the American criminal justice system, including the militarization of local police forces and rapid adoption of AI in policing. The rapid adoption of big data, facial recognition and predictive policing tools without adequate national and international standards for non-discrimination and digital evidence is of great concern. At this juncture it is all the more critical to question the systemic biases and racism in these systems, data structures and the ethics of the digital supply chain which subtend them.

However, we do realize that without the cell phone video digital evidence heroically provided by Darnella Frazier, the arrest and trial would likely not have occurred. Similarly, the massacre by the Ethiopian Army at Tigray was brought to light by digital evidence from cell phone video. Bystanders and whistleblowers have been driving a digital human rights campaign from their cell phones; but we need to critically examine this as they are dependent on corporate infrastructures (hardware, software, networks) to be able to do so.

The landmark verdict against Derek Chauvin was probably made possible only because the crime was perfectly documented and immediately went viral. Thus, it was almost instantaneously and completely transparent and counter-evidence or a “blue wall of silence” was difficult to construct. This immediate transparency also made it difficult for opponents of accountability of police officers to argue that the videos had been doctored.

This shows that digital evidence can only play a convincing role in the service of justice if its integrity is guaranteed; otherwise it is a particularly easy target for manipulation from various sides. Even the suspicion of manipulation would destroy confidence in the investigation. Transparency and integrity of data as a basis of accountability can only be guaranteed if the information does not only remain within the institution.

Therefore, in the case of George Floyd, Darnella Frazier and the other individual citizens who courageously stood up for civil rights and the human rights organizations played a very decisive role on the way to this landmark judgment. This is one step on the road that leads much further in the fight against discrimination and for justice, transparency and accountability under the framework of digital citizenship and international human rights.

— Marie-Michelle Strah and Carsten Momsen



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Center for International Human Rights

A research center at John Jay College focused on a critical examination of long-standing and emerging issues on the human rights agenda.