Some of the Most Pivotal Court Cases of 2020 You May Have Missed

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In this year alone, the country has witnessed a multitude of momentous court cases that will pave the path for the criminal justice system for years to come.

The late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg once said: "Dissent speaks to a future age. It's not simply to say, 'My colleagues are wrong and I would do it this way.' But the greatest dissents do become court opinions and gradually over time, their views become the dominant view. So that's the dissenter's hope: that they are writing not for today, but for tomorrow."

In this year alone, the country has witnessed a multitude of momentous court cases that will pave the path for the criminal justice system for years to come. At the height of the pandemic, as the coronavirus ravished the world, courthouses curtailed operations, thus putting jury trials at a standstill and delaying other court proceedings. Judges, attorneys, and courts, alike, grappled with enforcing the law while also maintaining public safety. 

Despite this, the courts were able to see through a handful of cases that will make their mark on history. Though riddled with conflict and controversy, the U.S. criminal justice system this year has tackled complex and sensitive cases, ultimately setting the precedent for a fairer and more ethical society. 

Below are some of the pivotal court cases that took place in 2020.

NYC Police Officer Charged in Death of Son Leads to Questions Over Child Protective Services

Michael Valva, a former NYPD officer, was charged earlier this year in connection to the freezing death of his 8-year-old son, Thomas, who died from hypothermia after he was allegedly locked in their garage overnight in below-freezing temperatures. Michael Valva, 40, called 911 on Jan. 17 to report that his son had fallen while waiting for the school bus, but when the young boy arrived at the hospital, his body was only 76 degrees. It was soon discovered that the boy died after alleged long-term abuse from his father and fiancee, Angela Polina, 42.

Leading up to the saddening event, more than 17 calls were made by teachers to Child Protective Services to report the boys’ urine-soaked clothing, bruising, and hunger––but Thomas and his brothers remained in their father’s care, the New York Post reported.

Prosecutors played an audio recording, obtained by People Magazine, from the morning of the boy’s death, where his brother was heard asking, “why can’t Thomas walk?” To which Pollina responds, “when you’re washed with cold water and it’s freezing, you get hypothermia.” Later in the recording, Michael Valva is heard allegedly saying, “Because he’s cold. Boo-f*****-hoo.”

After he was suspended without pay, Valva resigned after 15 years as an officer in the department on Oct. 28, the New York Daily News reported. His lawyer told the outlet that Valva voluntarily left the NYPD to protect what he’s already put into his pension. The Suffolk County District Attorney’s office also opened up a special grand jury case to look into the child welfare workers, judges, and lawyers who allegedly ignored two years of warnings of alleged abuse by his father, the News reported. Valva and Pollina are both charged with second-degree murder and child endangerment, Newsday reported. They both have pleaded not guilty.

Harvey Weinstein Sentenced to Prison for Rape

Hollywood was shaken when movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was put to trial on multiple sexual violence and abuse charges in the case that gave legs to the #MeToo movement. The disgraced movie maker was sentenced to 23 years in prison on Feb. 24 for committing a criminal sex act in the first-degree involving one woman and rape in the third-degree involving another, Inside Edition Digital reported. He was acquitted on more serious charges against him, involving predatory sexual assault involving two women. After the jury presented their verdict, victims cheered in the courtroom as Weinstein was handcuffed to his wheelchair and removed from the courthouse to begin his sentence at a New York State prison, Inside Edition Digital reported.

Donald Trump’s Impeachment and The Senate's Acquittal 

Perhaps what was more nail-biting than the events leading up to the scandalous impeachment of President Donald Trump was the eventual acquittal of his charges by the Senate in February. Prior to the impeachment, was a swift yet frantic four-month push by House Democrats to investigate Trump for allegedly withholding U.S. military aid from Ukraine as a tactic to persuade leaders to investigate Democratic political rivals, including president-elect Joe Biden, Politico reported. Also included in the impeachment articles were charges against Trump for obstructing the House investigation into this.

In a verdict on both articles, the first results in 52 votes for  “no” to abuse of power whereas 48 voted “yes”; and for article two, 53 voted “no” to obstruction of Congress and 47 voted “yes.” Following the verdict, Trump declared the outcome a victory ––calling the entire process a “witch hunt” and a “hoax,” to name a few remarks. 

However, by Nov. 3, Trump lost in a landslide election which swayed in tremendous favor of former vice president Joe Biden who received 306 electoral votes ––a total of 51.4% of the vote, according to the Associated Press. Biden received the most votes out of any presidential candidate in U.S. history, with over 81 million votes. Trump received 46.9% of the vote or just a shade over 74 million votes.

Golden State Killer Pleads Guilty

After he was arrested two years ago for the burglaries, brutal rapes and slayings of dozens of women in California, Joseph James DeAngelo Jr., otherwise known as the Golden State Killer, pleaded guilty to his crimes before Judge Bowman during a two-hour hearing in June, Inside Edition Digital previously reported. The killer, also known under epithets like the East Area Rapist or the Original Night Stalker, admitted to committing a series of heinous crimes including murders, rapes, and burglaries dating back as early as the mid-1970s. He pleaded guilty to 13 counts of first-degree murder and 13-rape related charges as part of a plea deal to spare him the death penalty, Inside Edition Digital reported. He is known to be responsible for 13 murders, 50 rapes, and nearly 120 burglaries, the New York Times reported. Also as part of his deal, he registered as a sex offender, admitted to his crimes involving 48 people, and paid restitution to the victim’s families.

The notorious killer, now 74 and frail, was a young man when he committed his crimes ––managing to evade authorities for four decades before he was arrested in 2018 in the outskirts of Sacramento. At the time of his early crimes, he worked as a police officer but after graduating from rapes to murder, he had settled into the suburbs and started working at a Save Mart grocery store, The New York Times reported

DeAngelo’s cold case was the first where a novel DNA technique that has since been used to examine a variety of other violent crimes, the Times reported. Investigators were able to trace a DNA sample that was found at the crime scene of a double murder in Ventura County in 1980. They were able to match it to distant relatives of DeAngelo. He received 11 consecutive life sentences without parole.

San Francisco Charges Police Officer in Unprecedented Moment

164 Black people were killed between January and August as a result of interactions with police officers in the U.S, according to data reported by CBS News. The cascade of deaths sparked an emotional outcry from Americans who demanded criminal and social justice reform. But advocates say the U.S. has witnessed cops abuse their power time and time again for decades. In California, in a landmark moment, a case from three years ago, gained some public attention when the San Francisco District Attorney court charged a former rookie police officer who, on his fourth day on the job in 2017, fatally shot a Black, unarmed carjacking suspect, Inside Edition Digital previously reported. This charge is the first time an on-duty law enforcement officer has been charged with homicide in San Francisco. On Dec. 1, 2017, San Francisco Police Department Officer Chris Samayoa and another training officer were among those who responded to a report of robbery and carjacking that day. The officers followed who they thought was a carjacking suspect through the Bayview District. The officers followed the van until they reached a dead-end street, where O'Neil got out of the car and began running on foot. Samayoa was seated in the passenger seat and shot O'Neil as he passed the police car. After a three-month-long investigation, Samayoa was fired from his position in March 2018 and, most recently, on Nov. 24 District Attorney Chesa Boudin charged him with voluntary and involuntary manslaughter, assault by an executive officer, assault with a semi-automatic firearm, and negligent discharge of a firearm, according to a statement. The other officer involved was not charged. This moment marks the first time the city has charged an officer –– and in less than a month since the first announcement, two other officers have faced criminal charges. The attorney's office says the public should be anticipating more to come. 

"For too long, we have seen the failures of our legal system to hold police accountable for the violence committed against the members of the public they are entrusted to keep safe. In my administration, police officers are not above the law," Boudin wrote in a statement that announced the charges against Samayoa. 

In response, the police officer union said that Samayoa was fired for doing what he was trained to do. Samayoa is scheduled to be arraigned Monday at 1:30 pm PT., the District Attorneys' office said.

Derek Chauvin Charged in Murder of George Floyd

Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer, was charged in the death of George Floyd on May 25. Amidst the lull of the pandemic, the country erupted in protests after Chauvin, 44, placed his knee on Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes, with three other officers by his side, as Floyd exclaimed he couldn’t breathe, Inside Edition Digital previously reported.

Chauvin, who worked in the department since 2001, and the three officers were fired from the Minneapolis Police Department a day after a video of the heinous act went viral. Chauvin was charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter. He posted $1 million bail and was released from custody on Oct. 7, CNN reported. He pleaded not guilty.