Part of what I am trying to teach in here is the use and importance of a more precise vocabulary, particularly about matters involving ethical concepts and distinction, and I want to report here about a case where that would have been useful for witnesses, the prosecuting attorney, and the judge in the Derek Chauvin trial for the killing of George Floyd.  The witnesses, I think, answered some terrible cross-examination questions from the defense attorney pretty well, but could have answered them better had they known more specifically how, and could have been helped by the prosecuting attorney on redirect if the prosecuting attorney had known how to phrase it correctly.  Plus the judge would have granted more justified leeway to the witnesses in answering and might not have been such a jerk to at least one of them.

First let me say that watching the trial of Derek Chauvin for the death of George Floyd renews and expands my view that the courts don’t really seek, and often discourage seeking, and prevent finding, “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”, and increases my disdain for the legitimate efficacy of the adversarial process, increases my disdain for formal rules and technicalities as means to a legitimate end, and increases my disdain for the dishonesty and duplicitous, deceptive, deviousness of attorneys.  Witnesses generally have to swear or affirm an oath that they will tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth (though in this trial, apparently the oath is to tell "the truth and nothing but the truth"), but then 1) are coached not to say any more than directly answers the question as briefly as possible, and 2) are often not allowed to explain their answer by the attorney questioning them.  That hardly allows for “the whole truth” or even the truth itself when the question is ambiguous or equivocal, generally purposefully, in order to intentionally mislead the jury.  If the question, for example, is “Did you see the accused strike my client” and you can only say “yes or no” but not say “Yes, he hit him back after your client hit him" or “Yes, he hit him after your client punched him so that your client would back off instead of hitting him again”, it is clearly misleading to a jury just to say “Yes” because it deceptively makes the person who was hit first sound like the aggressor.

Attorneys seem to have at least two hidden purposes for asking some of the questions they do, particularly when they require ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers that will be misleading if kept merely to ‘yes’ or ‘no’, without allowing the witness to explain.  They are either trying to mislead the jury or they are trying to get the witness to admit something that in ordinary life would be an admission of an innocent fact or that has some technical implication in law that no normal person would know about and essentially is an admission to something that outside of legal terminology would not be true.

The defense cross-examinations of witnesses Donald Williams II and firefighter Genevieve Hansen offers good examples of the heinous problem.  In direct examination by the prosecuting attorney, Mr. Williams testified that he repeatedly tried verbally to get Derek Chauvin to get his knee off Mr. Floyd’s neck because he thought Chauvin was killing Floyd for no good reason; he testified he thought he was murdering him – that he was witnessing a murder by the police.  He called 911 at the time in order to “call the police on the police” because he believed, as he said, these police officers were murdering George Floyd.  He tried various verbal ways to get Officer Chauvin to see he was doing the wrong thing and stop.  He escalated his rhetoric and answered “Yes” he said the things he was being asked about having said that were caught on tape or previously reported, including finally comments to Chauvin that were name-calling, such as “tough guy”, “big man”, “bum”, etc. apparently calling him a bum 13 times, when all less pejorative and more factual pleas were ignored.  For my purposes here, that line of questioning to that point was all fine.  Williams did all those things.  And under the circumstances, those things seemed, if anything, quite appropriate and actually benign; and not nearly as strong or aggressive as the situation actually proved to demand.  But the defense attorney wanted to make the questions and Mr. Williams' answers show that Mr. Williams had become the proverbial "angry black man" police needed to be concerned about in a way that didn't let them do their job properly in regard to George Floyd -- basically arguing that if the police did indeed kill Mr. Floyd or let him die, it was the fault of the bystanders who were, increasingly emphatically and vehemently telling the police they were killing Mr. Floyd, murdering him, and should immediately stop.

So the defense then asked Mr. Williams whether he was angry, particularly when he was name-calling and when he said some other morally strong things to the other police there who were doing nothing to prevent the killing of George Floyd, including telling one of those other officers that in two years he would probably put a bullet in his own head for not doing more to prevent what was happening when he realized his own responsibility for the death that was likely taking place.  Although the witness, Donald Williams, was a mixed martial arts fighter, a sometimes ‘bouncer’, and a sometimes security guard, he did not physically try to intercede other than brushing one of the officer’s hands off his chest when that officer tried to push him back further and telling the officer not to touch him again.  But clearly he was verbally escalating about the wrongness of the act of the police and trying as verbally emphatically as he could think of to get them to stop it.

This is where dishonesty, deviousness, and technicality come into play.  First, Williams said he was not angry but professionally controlled, explaining on redirect that meant doing what he needed to, and as he had done in various bouncer or security guard situations -- remain calm and in control of his emotions, words, and actions, and in a bouncer situation try to de-escalate any sort of upset group or individual, etc.).  The attorney repeated the question and when Williams repeated his answer, the attorney asked the judge to rule he was being unresponsive by not just answering ‘yes’ or ‘no’.  I think the judge did rule that, but I am not totally sure because the prosecution was objecting to the defense attorney and the defense attorney was asking for something at the same time and the judge said "overruled" and it wasn't clear on the TV what he was rejecting, though I think he said or agreed the witness was being unresponsive, but it was difficult to tell whether it was the judge agreeing or the defense attorney repeating the witness was unresponsive.  I am writing this under the belief that the judge ruled the witness unresponsive and was overruling the prosecution’s objection to the question.  But even if he did not rule that, it seems to me wrong for the defense attorney to even claim that was an unresponsive, improper answer to his question.  I will come back to this shortly.

Second, apparently the defense attorney for Derek Chauvin, according to his opening arguments, is trying to paint a picture of the four officers involved being confronted by an angry or unruly mob, particularly one containing many angry black people, and were thus unable to attend properly to Mr. Floyd because they had to focus on the crowd (though clearly they did not focus on the crowd, since there were three officers holding a handcuffed George Floyd on the ground pinned against the tires of a parked car, and only one standing in front of the dozen or so onlookers ("crowd" or "mob") to keep them back as they called for the police to let George Floyd breathe [and, more accurately about the knee on the neck part, let blood circulate through his neck to his brain.  The officers with their knee to Mr. Floyd’s back and diaphragm were the ones actually preventing Floyd from breathing, and Derek Chauvin was cutting off oxygenated blood getting to his brain, if I understand the news report about the autopsy, or if he couldn't get his breath because of cardiac issues brought on by a drugs and/or panic.]  If Mr. Williams answered simply but misleadingly "Yes" that he was angry and getting angrier as he escalated his rhetoric, that would help the defense’s claim about confrontation by an angry mob, particularly a mob that included (stereotypically) scary, angry black people who were a threat to them.

It is my view that the proper answer to the question of Mr. Williams about whether he was angry or not would be something like the following:

The question you are asking me is ambiguous because there are at least two different kinds of anger. No, I was not angry in the meaning of being either petulant or emotionally out of control like someone who just missed a golf shot and was throwing his clubs or a three year old who didn’t get what he wanted for his birthday and was throwing a tantrum or lashing out.  But, yes, I was morally indignant and justifiably morally distressed because I was watching three policemen killing a helpless person who was handcuffed and subdued on the ground pleading to be allowed to breathe, and having my and everyone else's pleas and exhortations to quit killing him ignored.  It was wrong and reprehensible, and I was trying to get them verbally to see it was wrong and egregious and to stop it.  What would you have done, nothing? And said nothing to them?  Would you have felt no moral indignation or any emotion at all about what they were doing?  Do you expect everyone to be some sort of unemotional, unfeeling sociopath in the face of abject evil?  So, yes, in that sense, I guess you could say I was angry if you want to call moral indignation in the face of intentional murder anger.  Next question please.

And if the court tried to stifle anything following the original “No”, then I would ask the judge how I am supposed to honor my oath to tell the (whole) truth if he won’t let me do that since the explanation is part of the (whole) truth when the question is ambiguous and clearly intentionally equivocal.  Just saying “yes” or “no” is not telling the truth because it is misleading in this context.

Here is video of this part of the cross examination with pointed, and in some cases morally scathing acerbic comments interjected in text in place of the longer, more explanatory, but no less excoriating, language above:

Now, whether there is some technicality that would make speaking with anger of any sort, even moral indignation, to police in this situation illegal, I don’t know, but the vagaries of the law are such that there very well could be and it could be that the defense attorney was trying to show that from a legal standpoint, the witness and others in the crowd were breaking the law or very close to it and thus were escalating the situation and actually endangering Mr. Floyd’s life.  If that is the case, that would be an example of how the technicality of law is divorced from common sense and common meaning and why you need to be very careful, precise, and explanatory in answering these kinds of questions.

And the defense attorney repeated and compounded the line of questioning with the female firefighter, Genevieve Hansen, an EMT who told these officers their captive was in serious health distress and offered to assist making sure he would be okay.  This was further reinforced by the judge who admonished Ms. Hansen for her answers, although she was simply trying to give meaningful answers, given the circumstances, which the defense attorney was isolating and ignoring and not allowing to be taken into account.  He asked her whether in her duties as a firefighter she had bystanders tell her how to do her job, as if that were what she was doing with the police officers in offering to take George Floyd's pulse or perform resuscitation measures if necessary.  She replied she had not.  He then asked whether she would not be distracted from her work or afraid if bystanders told her she was doing it wrong and called her names.  She answered that her training would allow her to stay focused and not be distracted or intimidated into doing it incorrectly. 

That was being too generous, too nice, and too accommodating to the defense attorney, by answering what he asked instead of what he meant, because his questions were too reductionist to be an accurate description of, or analogy for, what she was doing and because they were too (stupidly and meanly) slanted to allow for a reasonable, simple "yes" or "no" answer.  The correct, but likely not permitted, answer would have been something like the following I have entered in text form during the video:

Then he went into the "upset/angry" characterization again he had used with Donald Williams, although now instead of trying to evoke the angry, black man stereotype, he was going for the hysterical, controlling, or bitchy woman stereotype, asking her whether she was upset at being not listened to and told to be on the sidewalk and asking whether the crowd wasn't becoming increasingly agitated.  Her reply was struck from the record by the judge when, in response to a question about the increasingly agitated crowd, she said, “I don’t know if you’ve ever seen somebody be killed, but it’s upsetting.” Finally, when she sought to correct an earlier statement to police interviewers, the defense attorney objected even though earlier he had pointed out that memories could be mistaken and had allowed her to correct a previous impression based on later experience.  When she tried to finish her answer, the judge dismissed the jury in order to admonish her “You will not argue with the court. You will not argue with counsel. They have the right to ask questions.  Your job is to answer them.” But when she said she was finishing her answer, he took that to be "arguing with him" apparently and became visibly reproachful, then saying “I will instruct you when your answer is done.”  Once again, here is the video of that with my comments inserted in text at the relevant places.

And the answer you would want to give would be “No, because I was never killing someone while doing my job, you moronic jerk.”  Or “No, but your honor, if I may, you should call a recess and then paramedics because you seem to me to have all the signs of an impending major heart attack about to occur very soon – but I realize you don’t want to be told how to do your job by someone who is only a paramedic.  My apologies, your honor.”  Or as they did on an episode of House one time to bring this sort of fantasy to life in fiction: