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(Bloomberg) — If 2020 was the year of the protest, 2021 brought some long-awaited justice to victims. The U.S. courts this year handed down multiple convictions against police officers, including Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis cop that murdered George Floyd and sparked global protests for racial equality. Victims of sex trafficking and abuse also finally saw their days in court. And, Britney Spears, is finally free. 

Not every high-profile case brought the country closer to equality. The courts heard arguments for anti-abortion laws and reversed or undermined long-existing protections, such as the 1965 Voting Rights Act. 

Below are some of the most consequential cases of the year. 

Derek Chauvin Sentenced to 22 ½ Years for Murdering George Floyd 

Almost a year after a White former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on the neck of George Floyd, a Black man, for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, a jury convicted him of second degree murder. Floyd’s murder sparked what’s estimated to be the biggest protest movement in U.S. history, and after years of police killings, President Joe Biden called the verdict a “moment of significant change.” 

On June 25, judge Peter Cahill, who said Chauvin had abused “a position of trust and authority” and treated Floyd “with particular cruelty,” handed down a prison sentence of 22 years and six months for the former cop. It was several years shy of the 30-year minimum requested by the prosecution. Three other officers who were at the scene of the murder are set to stand trial in March 2022. In December, Chauvin pleaded guilty to federal charges for violating Floyd’s constitutional rights.

Ghislaine Maxwell Found Guilty

For the victims of Jeffrey Epstein, who died in jail before he could be tried for sex trafficking, the trial and conviction of Ghislaine Maxwell this month finally brought them some long awaited justice. 

On Dec. 29, Maxwell, the former long-time girlfriend of Epstein, was found guilty on five counts for her role in a sex-trafficking scheme in which she and Epstein preyed on teenaged girls. Four women who had been abused by Epstein, and in some cases Maxwell, testified to the socialite’s role in the abuse, describing how she enticed them into his orbit when some were as young as 13. Epstein was previously the subject of a 2005 investigation by Palm Beach police, and served 13 months following a much-criticized plea deal in 2008; he died by suicide while in police custody following his 2019 arrest. 

Maxwell’s most serious charge, sex-trafficking of a minor, carries a possible prison sentence of up to 40 years. “Even those with great power and privilege will be held accountable when they sexually abuse and exploit the young,” Annie Farmer, one of the victims who took the stand, said at the time of the verdict. Maxwell’s attorney said she would appeal the decision.

#FreeBritney Prevails

Now it’s nothing but her way: A Los Angeles superior court judge on Nov. 12 dissolved the conservatorship that had controlled pop star Britney Spears’ life and finances since 2008. She can now make her own decisions about her $60 million estate, as well as her career, body, and relationships.

The move followed the viral #FreeBritney campaign that raised awareness for how conservatorships can be abused and put disabled, elderly, and incapacitated people at risk of abuse. In a video addressing fans following the dissolution, Spears said she aims “to be an advocate for people with real disabilities and illnesses. Hopefully my story will make an impact and make some changes in the corrupt system.”

Fair Game for Student Athletes’ Bank Accounts

The U.S. Supreme Court on June 21 rejected the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s bid for antitrust immunity with regard to how student-athletes are compensated for their work. Following the 9-0 decision, the NCAA on June 29 waived its rules prohibiting student-athletes from profiting off of their names, images, and likenesses, a change that went into effect July 1.

Companies are already lining up their fantasy rosters. PepsiCo Inc.-owned Gatorade signed its first NCAA athlete, University of Connecticut basketball star Paige Bueckers, in November.

R. Kelly Convicted of Sex Trafficking

After the 2019 docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly” resurfaced longstanding sexual misconduct and abuse allegations against R. Kelly, the singer was this year  found guilty in a sex trafficking trial. Several of the victims who testified were minors at the time of the abuse by Kelly.  “To the victims in this case, your voices were heard and justice was finally served,” acting U.S. Attorney Jacquelyn Kasulis said when the verdict was reached. 

“I Never Thought This Day Would Come”

In November, three White men were found guilty of murdering Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man, while he was running through their neighborhood in Satilla Shores, GA. Travis McMichael, his father Greg, and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, who together chased and killed Arbery, still face federal hate crime and attempted kidnap charges. Attorneys for Bryan and the McMichaels said they would appeal.

At the time of the verdict, Arbery’s mother Wanda Cooper-Jones said she “never thought this day would come,” and that her son would “now rest in peace.” President Biden said the verdict “ensures that those who committed this horrible crime will be punished,” and added that Arbery’s murder is a “devastating reminder” of the rampant racism that exists in the U.S.

Another Officer Found Guilty

A jury deliberated over four days regarding the April 11 murder of 20-year-old Daunte Wright by Kim Potter, who was then a police officer for the Minneapolis Police Department. (She quit the force the day before being charged with Wright’s murder in April.)

Potter, who is White, said she mistook her gun for a taser, and ultimately shot and killed Wright, who was Black, at a traffic stop. She was on December 22 found guilty of both first-and second-degree manslaughter. Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose team also argued the Chauvin case this year, said at the time of the verdict that “justice is beyond the reach that we have in this life for Daunte. But accountability is an important step, a critical necessary step on the road to justice for us all.”

Tesla’s $137 Million Racism Verdict

In a rare jury trial for a racial discrimination case, Tesla Inc. was ordered to pay a staggering $137 million in damages to a worker who faced racism at the electric carmaker’s Fremont, California plant. Experts believe it’s the largest verdict for an individual in such a case. 

A juror in the case told Bloomberg News the damages were meant to get Tesla executives to “take the most basic preventative measures and precautions they neglected to take as a large corporation to protect any employee within their factory.”

Tesla typically uses mandatory arbitration to resolve employee disputes, but in this instance it had to defend itself in a public trial. The company almost never loses workplace arbitrations and is challenging this award. 

White Nationalist Organizers Must Pay for Charlottesville

Seventeen people and organizations were on Nov. 23 found liable for more than $26 million in damages for organizing the deadly “Unite the Right” White supremacist rally held in Charlottesville, Virginia. Jurors found the group of White nationalists, neo-Nazis and their organizations liable for conspiracy under Virginia law, though were deadlocked on two federal conspiracy charges, including one brought under a rarely used provision in the Ku Klux Klan Act. The suit was brought by nine plaintiffs who suffered physical or emotional injuries at the rally and its counter-protest. James Alex Fields Jr., who killed Heather Heyer when he drove his car into a group of people protesting the rally, was found liable for over $12 million in punitive damages; he previously pled guilty to 29 hate crime violations and is serving a life sentence in prison. Attorney Roberta Kaplan said the verdict “sends a loud message.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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