Reform Requires a Complete Picture of George Floyd

I don’t need to know much about George Floyd to be horrified by his murder. I can’t shake the image of Floyd calling out to his dead mother as he was strangled. But if we are holding up Floyd as a rallying cry for reform, then we do need to know about him. The information we need about Floyd is how his life was affected by the criminal justice system. The most important fact is that he was murdered by a policeman. But the rest of his life can teach us important things too, and might make us a little bit uncomfortable.

I recently read a New York Times article about the life of George Floyd. It went into granular detail about his exploits in sports, at work, and in religion. We found out about why he moved to Minneapolis from Houston. We found out about his propensity to hug people. We heard from an NBA star that he physically resembled. He had never been in a fight. He told jokes to cheer up his teammates after a loss. But the article totally passed over his involvement in the criminal justice system. This left me puzzled, since his involvement in the criminal justice system is the reason for his notoriety. Moreover, he is being held up as an example of why we need to reform the criminal justice system. Given that, readers need a complete picture.

The New York Times Passes Over Floyd’s Criminal History

But he returned to Texas after a couple of years, and lost nearly a decade to arrests and incarcerations on mostly drug-related offenses. By the time he left his hometown for good a few years ago, moving 1,200 miles to Minneapolis for work, he was ready for a fresh start…

For about a decade starting in his early 20s, Mr. Floyd had a string of arrests in Houston, according to court and police records. One of those arrests, for a $10 drug deal in 2004, cost him 10 months in a state jail.

Here’s a summary from the Daily Mail. “Floyd was sentenced to 10 months in jail for having less than one gram of cocaine in a December 2005 arrest. Ok, so far the Times is doing fine.  “He had previously been sentenced to eight months for the same offense, stemming from an October 2002 arrest.” The Times omitted this. “Floyd was arrested in 2002 for criminal trespassing and served 30 days in jail.” Omitted. “He had another stint for a theft in August 1998.” Also omitted. What is lost in these omissions is the implication that Floyd might have been a cocaine addict in the early 2000s.

The New York Times Omits the Facts of Floyd’s 2007 Armed Robbery

This is the most frustrating part: “Four years later, Mr. Floyd pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon and spent four years in prison.” That’s the only thing the article said. They complete omit what actually happened. Court documents detail the facts of the assault:

Here’s The Daily Mail again. Compare the detail provided here with the detail provided by the Times.

“Floyd pleaded guilty to the robbery where another suspect posed as a worker for the local water department, wearing a blue uniform in an attempt to gain access to the woman’s home… But when the woman opened the door, she realized he was not with the water department and attempted to close the door, leading to a struggle. At that time, a Ford Explorer pulled up to the home and five other males exited the car and went up to the front door. The report states the largest of the group, who the victim later identified as Floyd, ‘forced his way inside the residence, placed a pistol against the complainant’s abdomen, and forced her into the living room area of the residence. ‘This large suspect then proceeded to search the residence while another armed suspect guarded the complainant, who was struck in the head and sides by this second armed suspect with his pistol while she screamed for help.’ Not finding any drugs or money at the house, the men took jewelry and the woman’s cell phone and fled in their car. A neighbor who witnessed the robbery took down the car’s license plate number. Later, police tracked down the car and found Floyd behind the wheel. He was later identified by the woman as the large suspect who placed a gun against her stomach and forced her into her living room, the document states. 

(Emphasis added.)

They New York Times Omits the Fact that Floyd Was High When He Was Killed

Floyd went to prison for five years. He got out in 2014, and remained conviction-free until his death. He did not remain crime-free, as we know from the medical examiner’s report. He had fentanyl and methamphetamine in his system. These facts, without Floyd’s history, are interesting but not useful. But taken together, Floyd seems to be a man whose life was derailed by drug use. That’s an important thing for us to remember as we decide how to reform our laws. But the New York Times did not include the facts about his drug use in their biographical article.

Why Does This Matter? Murder is Murder, Right?

None of these things excuse the officer’s conduct. I hope they are kept out of the criminal trial, since they are inflammatory and irrelevant there. But they are relevant for people trying to reform the law. Could we have saved George Floyd by keeping him off of drugs? That is a question that would not have occurred to a reader of the Times.

The most important point is that any discussion of criminal justice reform will have to grapple with the idea that none of the people involved in the system are perfect. Many, like Floyd, are lifelong criminals who never managed to “get out” of the street. Their problems are compounded by drug use, mental health issues, and many other issues that can’t all be solved by the police. We have to understand that the people involved in the system might not be people that we would have over for dinner. Nonetheless, they don’t deserve to be treated the way Floyd was treated. We should think of Floyd as a martyr, but not as a hero, because the truth matters.

By failing to include a complete picture, the Times robs us of the ability to decide for ourselves what to make of George Floyd. They did not think this information was relevant to the public, even though they were publishing an article on his life. I can only speculate as to why they left this out. Many people assign political motives to the Times. Were they trying to make George Floyd seem like a better man, so that his death would seem more outrageous, and more people would read their coverage? Were they trying to downplay his drug addiction because they are politically hostile to drug enforcement? It’s all speculation. But I prefer to have all the facts, and I’m disappointed that I couldn’t get them from the Times.


Here’s another summary of Floyd’s record from the Sun.

Most people (on Twitter) realize that Floyd was not a hero. But here’s a couple of people who don’t.

Drug Crimes are Real Crimes

If crack were an enjoyable drug that you could get high on without any effects, then we might comfortably reconsider its prohibition.

But some persons, who comprise a large (if unknown) percentage of all those who experiment with heroin, develop a relentless and unmanageable craving for the drug such that their life becomes organized around searching for it, using it, enjoying it, and searching for more.

(James Q. Wilson, Thinking About Crime, at p. 185.)

Crack, for example, is so addictive that many people cannot live normal lives while getting high on crack.  They only want to get high, they don’t want to do anything else, and their lives fall apart.  The rest of us end up choosing between caring for them or letting them die.  Which is an easy choice, but we should not be in that situation in the first place.  Addiction and the addicted themselves are the first problem presented by addiction.

The second problem is crime by addicts and dealers.  Los Angeles City Councilman and former LAPD chief Bernard Parks noted that when drug-related arrests fall, thefts and residential burglaries rise. He said,

“People who are using drugs are also committing other crimes. How do they stay heroin users? How do they support their habit? … People don’t want to understand that I can’t be a crack addict and have a profession. Nobody’s giving me drugs. I rob and burglarize and steal.”

In 2004, 17% of state prisoners and 18% of federal inmates said they committed their current offense to obtain money for drugs.  In 2002 about a quarter of convicted property and drug offenders in local jails had committed their crimes to get money for drugs, compared to 5% of violent and public order offenders.

Drug dealing is even more of a problem.  Again, crack is an instructive example.  Crack was, and to a lesser extent still is, dealt on street corners.  It is bought and sold in the open.  Crack dealers violently complete over these corners and sales territory in general.  Needless to say, this is extremely dangerous to the people that live in those neighborhoods.  Crack is valuable and can be easily stolen, but the police aren’t available to protect a crack dealer when he has been robbed, so a gun is a virtual necessity.  Guns on the street are inherently dangerous.

The opioid epidemic is a real problem.  42,249 people died from opioid overdoses in 2016.  By contrast, 37,461 people were killed in traffic collisions.  Given the gravity of the problem, we should be doing everything we can to prevent people from illegally possessing opioids.  We should be punishing the dealers of illegal opioids with punishment that reflects the seriousness of the crime.  If the punishment must fit the crime, we should not go easy on those who poison such a large number of our friends and neighbors.

The Mercy Rule

When I used to play ping pong in the garage, we followed the “skunk rule”.  If anyone went up 7-0 on their opponent, they clinched the game and won early, without needing to go all the way to 11 points, like normal.  I’ve heard other people call it “the mercy rule.”

I just finished a trial involving a state prisoner.  He was accused of possessing a homemade syringe.  The syringe itself was an interesting design.  He had a needle, we don’t know where he got it, but the rest of the syringe was made from common items in the jail.  The needle was attached to a ballpoint pen that the inmate had hollowed out.  He had taken out the ball point, and replaced it with the syringe.  He also took out all of the pen components at the other end, where he put a piece of rubber that was sealed airtight.  The completed syringe works a lot like a turkey baster.  You squeeze the piece of rubber, move your needle over the drugs, and release the squeeze.  That sucks the drugs up into the former pen.  Then you stab yourself in a vein and squeeze a second time.  The drugs go into your vein, and off you go.

So we file the case, and it lingers around for a while, and then eventually the inmate demands his trial.  The assigned prosecutor is out of state for the trial date, and the case gets handed to me.  More out of curiosity than anything else, I decided I wanted to go to the prison to see what was going on.  I spent a half day out there, talking to the various correctional officers and seeing the sights.  I knew that jurors tend to not care much about these prison cases.  They have to be convinced by the prosecutor that she is not wasting their time.  But their default position is “bad stuff happens in prison, so what?”  I figured that they way I could get them to care about this crime, in which no one was injured, was to point out that prison is where we try to rehabilitate a lot of drug users, and that drug users can’t get clean if their cellmates are constantly smuggling around drugs and paraphernalia.

I went to the CDCR website, which is full of useful statistics, to see if they had anything on drug use in the prison.  They did not disappoint.  It turns out they had a paper analyzing the success of their recent efforts to reduce drug use in the prison.  It turns out that the CDCR does random drug tests of inmates.  They prepared a chart to summarize the results under the heading “[d]rugs and drug use are prevalent in California prisons.”  I like the CDCR for publishing all this data, but I love them for cutting to the chase.  10% of inmates failed their random drug screen during a six-month period.  By contrast, a high school that conducted random drug testing only had 8 positive tests.  That’s 8, not 8%.  And the school district has 23,000 students.  On the other hand, its in Oklahoma.

I thought I might introduce this evidence through an expert witness.  But about 10 seconds of reading gave me a better idea.  My prison probably does drug testing.  My prison probably does drug testing after an inmate is caught with contraband.  My defendant was caught with contraband.  I should see if he has any positive tests!  Sure enough, the prison has computerized (most) of their disciplinary files.  I was able to get access to my defendant’s records.

It turns out that he had tested positive for opiates only a few days before the incident.  And only a few days after the incident.  And every single month since then.  He even tested positive seven days before the trial started.  Seven days!  It really shows you what addiction looks like.  Or how stupid he thinks we all are.  The more I think about it, the more I think it was the latter.  And he might have been right to think that the prosecutor would not coordinate with the CDCR.  After all, the case had been around for a good long while and no one had done it yet.

I brought the evidence to defense counsel the day after we had picked a jury.  He asked the court for an indicated sentence, which the court would not give.  Then the defendant pleaded no contest to all the counts and allegations anyway, even though he had no idea what he was going to get.  He gave up.  And he gave up before we had even begun to try the case.  It feels a little bit like I skunked him.  I should say, he took advantage of the mercy rule.