Chauvin Defense Calls Its First Witnesses

The first day of defense testimony in the trial of Derek Chauvin featured at least one reluctant witness and aggressive cross-examinations.

In this screen grab from video, defense attorney Eric Nelson, left, speaks as defendant, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, right, listens, Tuesday, April 13, at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis, Minn. (Court TV, via AP, Pool)

MINNEAPOLIS (CN) — The murder trial of Derek Chauvin moved on to the former police officer’s defense Tuesday morning as attorney Eric Nelson called a rapid-fire series of witnesses, including an use-of-force expert, a woman who was in a car with Floyd before his arrest, and the only police officer at the scene of George Floyd’s deadly arrest who is not facing charges for his death. 

Minneapolis Park Police Officer Peter Chang came to 38th and Chicago on May 25, 2020, to assist Minneapolis Police Department officers J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane on a forgery report. Body camera video shown for the first time in court on Tuesday showed Chang’s interactions with Kueng, who told him to keep an eye on Floyd’s friends Shawanda Hill and Morries Hall across the street from Cup Foods. 

The body camera footage showed officers’ initial apprehension of Floyd and interactions with Hill and Hall, who stood on the sidewalk across the street for the bulk of Floyd’s arrest and said in the footage that they couldn’t see what was happening. “Can I just see what y’all did to him?” Hill asked Chang at one point. “Why is he going to the hospital?”

Chang, questioned by defense attorney Nelson, confirmed that people seemed to be watching from various points around the intersection and said that he was regularly checking behind him to make sure his colleagues were safe. “I was concerned for the officers’ safety because of the crowd, so I just wanted to be sure that the officers were ok,” he said. 

Nelson has worked throughout the trial to depict the crowd of bystanders who filmed and observed Floyd’s arrest, sometimes shouting at Chauvin and his fellow officers, as an unruly mob that distracted or endangered his client. 

That idea was reinforced by the defense’s first use-of-force expert, Barry Brodd, a private consultant and 22-year veteran of the Santa Rosa police department. Brodd opined that Chauvin’s use of force against Floyd was appropriate throughout the nine minutes and 29 seconds prosecutors say he was on Floyd’s back or neck, and that the prone restraint of Floyd was not a use of force. 

“With Mr. Floyd’s level of resistance — it was objectively reasonable for the officers to use the level of force they were currently using,” he said. At no point did Chauvin and his colleagues use deadly force, he said, and “any resister, handcuffed or not, should go to the ground in a prone control position.” 

That position, he said, wasn’t a use of force. There were also other factors justifying it, he said.

“In this situation there were space limitations, Mr. Floyd was butted up against patrol car, there was traffic still driving down the street, there were crowd issues that took the attention of the officers and Mr. Floyd was still somewhat resisting,” Brodd said. “I think those were all valid reasons to keep him in the prone.” 

Prosecutor Steve Schleicher took up much of the afternoon with cross-examination of Brodd. Pointing to Brodd’s earlier contention that because the prone restraint doesn’t necessarily cause pain, it was not force, he asked at several points about the times Floyd said that his face, chest or neck hurt or that he couldn’t breathe. 

Schleicher also worked to dismantle the hostile-crowd defense with Brodd, at one point pointing to each individual observer in front of Cup Foods and asking if they were, at the time of Floyd’s last gasp of “I can’t breathe,” presenting a threat to the officers. 

“Well they’re not doing anything, and they’re not saying anything, so would a reasonable police officer be distracted by their non-action?” Schleicher said of the group, pointing out that at this point Chauvin was looking at Floyd and responded to his complaints with “uh-huh.” 

He also took Brodd to task about what point he believed Floyd stopped resisting. 

“What part of this is not compliant?” he asked, pointing to a clip in which Floyd appeared to be motionless on the ground. 

Brodd pointed to the position of Floyd’s arms. “A perfectly compliant person would have their hands in the small of their back and would be resting comfortably.” 

“Resting comfortably? On the pavement?” Schleicher said, stepping back from the podium for a moment before returning to cross-examination.

On cross-examination by Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank, Chang confirmed that he had received a “code four” call, which indicated that the scene was under control. Frank asked whether, as the incident continued, Chang ever got an indicator that they needed more help. 

“You assumed that those officers over there were ok, because there were four of them?” Frank asked. Chang said he did. 

“If they had radioed for help you would have gone over there?” Frank continued.

“Yes,” Chang said. 

“And they never radioed for help, did they?”

“No,” Chang replied. 

Hill testified shortly before Chang, visibly annoyed with the proceedings and particularly with Nelson. She rolled her eyes at both Nelson and Frank as she answered questions about meeting Floyd, who she’d described to Chang as her ex, at Cup Foods. 

In this image from video, Shawanda Hill testifies Tuesday, April 13, in the trial of former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin. (Court TV via AP, Pool)

Nelson particularly focused in on a moment when Floyd fell asleep in the car outside Cup Foods. Hill, who was mumbling and difficult to understand for much of her testimony, acknowledged that Floyd had fallen asleep at one point but had told her earlier that he was tired. That answer was stricken as nonresponsive, however. 

The possibility of Hall appearing in court remains up in the air. Before trial, Hall’s public defender Adrienne Cousins preemptively notified the court that if called he would plead the fifth, in part because Minnesota’s third-degree murder statute has a broad reach in assigning culpability for drug-related deaths. 

Hall hasn’t admitted to giving Floyd drugs, but Floyd’s girlfriend Courteney Ross testified that she believed Hall had sold them to him in the past. If Chauvin prevails on his argument that Floyd died of a drug overdose or related issue, Cousins said, Hall could face the murder rap instead. 

Hill, Chang and Brodd were preceded by three witnesses from Minneapolis’ emergency services: two police officers, one current and one retired, and one retired paramedic. Officer Scott Creighton, the retired Minneapolis police officer, and retired paramedic Michelle Moseng took the stand to discuss an encounter they had with Floyd in 2019, accompanied by body camera footage. 

In it, Floyd appeared panicked and jittery, and, like in May of 2020, begged Creighton not to shoot him. At some point, the officer told him to spit something out, and Moseng testified that when she examined him later on, he copped to a serious opiate addiction. 

“He told me that he had been taking multiple — like, every 20 minutes, and it was, I don’t remember if it was Oxy or Percoset, but it was opioid based,” she said. He also denied any medical issues, but acknowledged a history of hypertension when she brought up his high blood pressure, she said. 

Nelson has worked at various points to establish that Floyd had a modus operandi of eating drugs to conceal them from police. Pursuant to an order from Cahill, however, he didn’t make that connection explicit on Tuesday. 

Cross-examination of each by Assistant Attorney General Erin Eldridge was brief and sharp. 

“While you were interacting with Mr. Floyd, he didn’t collapse on the ground, correct?” she asked Creighton. 

“No, he did not,” the former officer said. 

“Mr. Floyd didn’t drop dead while you were interacting with him, correct?”

Creighton said he didn’t. Eldridge finished cross shortly afterward.

The other officer, Nicole Mackenzie, first testified April 6 as a witness for the prosecution. As the MPD’s Medical Support Coordinator, Mackenzie was first called to testify about the basic medical training officers receive, including CPR. In her testimony, however, she mentioned a hotly disputed condition known as Excited Delirium Syndrome, which Lane brought up during Floyd’s arrest. That topic was the center of Nelson’s examination of Mackenzie on Tuesday. 

“It’s a condition that’s a variety of different medical issues that are happening at the same time. This can be something like psychosis, agitated delirium, it could be pressurized speech, incoherent speech, superhuman strength, hyperthermia — they can all be present,” Mackenzie said of the syndrome. She outlined the police department’s training on the topic, including the acronym “NOTACRIME.” 

Prosecutors, on cross-examination, quizzed Mackenzie on the care officers are expected to provide in those situations. “Excited delirium, if it exists, could compromise proper breathing?” Frank asked. Mackenzie said it could. 

“And officers in the MPD, including veteran officers, are trained on CPR?”

She confirmed that, along with Frank’s contention that officers had a duty to provide CPR when possible and necessary.

He finally made a glancing reference to an earlier witness: emergency physician William Smock, who opined in his testimony on April 9 that Floyd didn’t exhibit any of the syndrome’s characteristic symptoms. “Would you defer to an emergency room doctor as to whether someone was suffering from excited delirium?”

“Absolutely, yes,” Mackenzie replied. 

The hearing ended for the day around 4:30 p.m after the attorneys and Cahill discussed a few discovery issues. Defense witnesses are expected to continue through Thursday or Friday, with closing arguments scheduled for Monday. 

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