The jury that convicted Derek Chauvin of murdering George Floyd got it right. In the wake of a verdict like this one, it is almost instinctual to suggest that the jury spoke on behalf of the American people, striking a blow for racial justice. But although jury verdicts are often infused with meaning, this kind of interpretation ought to be approached with caution. We won't know whether this moment marks a turning point for many years to come.
The temptation to treat a jury verdict in a big case as symbolic stems, I think, from our powerful human tendency to use individual stories as metaphors in order to make sense of the world around us. Faced with a nationally prominent incident like the murder of George Floyd, our inclination is to say that the jury's decision is a leading indicator of where our nation is going.
And it's true that as an institution, a jury can be understood to express popular sentiment. Yet any specific jury isn't a cross-section of the American public. It's just 12 people, asked to render a verdict on the facts and law presented to them. Jurors come from the vicinity, not from the whole country. They are chosen because they happen to be qualified and appeared unbiased during the selection process. We can choose to assign the jury greater representative significance that it actually possesses, but that is our storytelling instinct at work, not reality.
Seen from this narrower perspective, the Chauvin verdict doesn't necessarily offer us any grand conclusion about the trajectory of racial justice in the U.S.
To be sure, the verdict is a relief, especially because we know from past experience that the jury could have gone the other way. We have repeatedly seen juries in the past decline to convict police of the most serious charges in excessive-force cases with Black victims. Sometimes, prosecutors don't even bring serious charges. We want to believe that things are getting better — that movements like Black Lives Matter make a difference. Chauvin's conviction fits that narrative of gradual improvement. And had Chauvin not been convicted of murder, the verdict would certainly have been held up as yet another instance of systemic racism.
Even so, this guilty verdict may not signify anything more than one good outcome reached by honest people who, for once, didn't disbelieve their eyes in a case involving police use of force against a Black victim.
The jury was not asked to determine that Chauvin murdered Floyd because of racism, whether conscious or unconscious. The jury was not asked to determine whether and how systemic racism structured the encounter between the murderer and the victim. It was asked only to determine whether, on the basis of the facts presented, Chauvin knowingly caused Floyd's death.
The upshot is that we cannot know if the guilty verdict for the murder of George Floyd signifies an inflection point in the trajectory of racial justice. Perhaps, years from now, if existing trends are reversed and more police officers start to be held accountable for using excessive force against Black people, we will be able to look back at this verdict as a turning point. But that would have to be a retrospective judgment based on change.
We often want our criminal-courts system to bear tremendous symbolic burdens, whether negative or positive. The truth is that the courts are only a small part of a bigger system. A jury verdict can send a message, or try to do so, but a jury has no power to fundamentally change the system. That work is on the rest of us.
Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and host of the podcast "Deep Background." He is a professor of law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include "The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President."