Chauvin Trial Crawls Toward Verdict With Lengthy Closing Arguments

Both sides in the Minneapolis police officer’s murder trial drew attention to different portions of video evidence in their ongoing final appeals to the jury.

In this image from video, former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin listens as his defense attorney Eric Nelson gives closing arguments as Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill presides Monday, April 19, in the trial of Chauvin at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis. Chauvin is charged in the May 25, 2020 death of George Floyd. (Court TV via AP, Pool)

MINNEAPOLIS (CN) — The murder trial of Derek Chauvin for the death of George Floyd approached its conclusion Monday as attorneys for both gave their closing arguments. 

Defense attorney Eric Nelson embarked on a marathon closing, apologizing at various points for being long-winded.

While the prosecution will have a chance at rebuttal, he said, “I get one bite at the apple here.” Nelson had surpassed the two-and-a-half-hour mark when Judge Peter Cahill asked him to take a break for lunch. He finally closed after just shy of three hours of argument.

Floyd’s death and Chauvin’s trial have both involved a substantial amount of video. A video taken by 17-year-old bystander Darnella Frazier at 38th Street and Chicago Avenue sparked protests last May that developed into riots and called for Chauvin and three colleagues’ arrest and charges.

Footage from that video and several other bystanders’ videos were shown at trial along with tape from body cameras and a handful of nearby security cameras, as part of the first televised trial in Minnesota history.

Prosecutor Steve Schleicher urged the jurors to believe what they’d seen.

“It’s exactly what you saw with your eyes, it’s what you knew. It’s what you felt in your gut, and it’s what you felt in your heart. This wasn’t policing. It was abuse. The defendant is guilty of all three counts. All of them. And there’s no excuse,” he said near the end of his closing statement.

Nelson made much more extensive use of video, playing segments of body camera footage and asserting at each point that Chauvin and his fellow officers were behaving reasonably.

“Do not let yourselves be misled by a single still-frame image. Put the evidence in its proper context,” he exhorted, pointing to a frame used frequently by the prosecution where Chauvin is shown picking his shoe just high enough off the ground for light to stream through the gap.

Schleicher asked the jurors to consider the charges of second- and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter individually and separately from broader debates about policing.

“This case is not called the State of Minnesota vs. The Police. It is not. Policing is a noble profession,” Schleicher said. “Make no mistake, this is not a prosecution of the police, this is a prosecution of the defendant. And there’s nothing worse for good police than bad police.” 

He pointed out that police owe a duty of care to people in their custody and argued that Chauvin should have made use of his CPR training to address Floyd’s increasing distress.

Schleicher also hit eyewitness testimony hard, particularly the testimony of Frazier’s nine-year-old cousin and that of 61-year-old Charles McMillian. “He called out to George Floyd, he said ‘you can’t win, you can’t win,’” Schleicher said of McMillian. “And George Floyd replied, ‘I’m not trying to win. I’m not trying to win. I’m scared.’ But the defendant was trying to win … and George Floyd paid for it with his life.”

Nelson, meanwhile, reminded jurors that they needed to see Chauvin’s use of force from the perspective of a reasonable officer.

“The evidence in this case has shown over and over again that the defendant is not that officer,” he said, pointing out that all of the state’s several use-of-force experts said Chauvin exhibited excessive force at some point throughout the nine minutes and 29 seconds he restrained Floyd.

Schleicher also talked up the state’s star expert witness, Dr. Martin Tobin. Tobin, a pulmonologist and intensive-care doctor, testified April 8 that Floyd had died of asphyxia as a result of Chauvin’s and his fellow officers’ restraint, demonstrating the mechanics of the lungs and throat as he did so. 

“Dr. Tobin literally wrote the book on the subject, and he was able to tell you what this looks like. What he was able to observe was oxygen deprivation, was asphyxia,” Schleicher said. He pointed out that the defense’s medical experts said at different points that they would have to defer to a pulmonologist on questions of asphyxia. 

“Dr. Tobin’s position corroborates the police training, and what the police have known for 30 years,” Schleicher said. 

He also asked jurors to dismiss the defense’s arguments about Floyd’s death.

“You’re not required to accept nonsense,” Schleicher said. He scoffed at the idea that Floyd died of carbon monoxide toxicity from the police squad car he was held behind.

“You’re not required to accept that the car did it, you’re not required to accept that, or to accept that it’s somehow the bystanders’ fault,” he said.

As for the idea that Floyd was exhibiting “superhuman” strength or unable to feel pain, Schleicher said that too was bunk.

“There was no superhuman strength because there are no superhumans. Those exist in comic books,” he said. He hammered that point in again later.

“The problem with terms like ‘superhuman, superhuman strength’ — you forget that those people don’t exist,” Schleicher said. “Humans feel pain.”

Nelson spent a lengthy piece of his closing argument seeking to discredit Tobin’s testimony, which had many jurors following along by touching their throats and chests at his cue. He also argued that the pulmonologist’s perspective was not as important in this case as the perspective of a “reasonable police officer.”

“This is the point where Dr. Tobin testified that Mr. Floyd had an anoxic seizure. But we’re not analyzing this from the perspective of a doctor with 46 years of experience” who had time to review this, he said, pointing out a video clip wherein Floyd kicks his legs and flails an arm briefly before lying still.

“A reasonable police officer would interpret this as at least some form of physical resistance,” Nelson said.

Nelson argued that the prosecution had to prove that asphyxia, and not any of Floyd’s other complicating conditions, killed him and that it had not done so. He pointed to Floyd’s high blood pressure and level of drug intoxication, walking back a pre-trial argument that Floyd had died of a drug overdose.

“We’re not suggesting that this was an overdose death,” Nelson said. “It’s a multifactorial context.”

He also pushed against the idea that Chauvin could have provided care for Floyd, pointing out that firefighter Genevieve Hansen had also testified that she would have anticipated a faster EMS response and that she walked up behind the officers at the time Tobin said Floyd drew his last breath. The scene, he said, was unsafe for CPR. 

“Three things happen,” Nelson said of that moment. “Mr. Floyd takes his last breath. You see Officer Chauvin’s reaction to the crowd is to take his mace and shake it … and Genevieve Hansen walks in at that time, from behind him. Startling him. All of these facts and circumstances simultaneously occur at a critical moment. And that changed Officer Chauvin’s perception of what was happening.”

“Throughout the course of this trial, the state has focused your attention on 9 minutes and 29 seconds,” Nelson said. “The proper analysis is to take those 9 minutes and 29 seconds, and put it into the context of the totality of the circumstances that a reasonable police officer would know.”

Prosecutor Jerry Blackwell dismissed Nelson’s arguments on rebuttal as misstating or conveniently abridging the facts and the law.

“The whole narrative cut off before we got to the point that Mr. Floyd was not moving, he did not have a pulse, he was not conscious, and the defendant was still on top of him,” Blackwell noted. He also pointed out that the state had to prove only that Chauvin’s conduct was a substantial causal factor in Floyd’s death, not, as Nelson said, the only one.

He also threw water on the idea that the crowd of onlookers objecting to Floyd’s treatment were too unruly or had a skewed perspective.

“They saw that a human being they did not know was suffering, and they wanted to try … to stop the suffering,” Blackwell said.

“They were in a very difficult spot there,” he continued. “They felt torn between their love for the sanctity of life itself, and on the other hand their respect for the authority that the badge represents.”

Bystanders, Blackwell said, could have stepped in to intervene.

“None of them did that,” he said. “Instead, they called the police on the police. Instead, they picked up their phones.”

Following Blackwell’s statement, Cahill instructed and dismissed the jury and began to deal with some remaining housekeeping issues. One of those was Nelson’s motion for a mistrial. 

The defense attorney objected to Schleicher’s characterization of his arguments as “nonsense” and Blackwell’s use of phrases like “telling stories,” saying that an instruction by Cahill to disregard those uses was insufficient.

“I do believe that it constitutes prosecutorial misconduct, and it could be grounds for a mistrial,” he said.

He also pointed to the extensive media and political attention paid to the case, particularly comments made by Rep. Maxine Waters Saturday in nearby Brooklyn Center, the site of still more protests and confrontations with a heavily militarized police force after the April 11 killing of 20-year-old Daunte Wright by a police officer. Waters’ comments included exhortations to protesters to “stay on the street,” and “get more confrontational.” 

“It has been my position all along, since the beginning of this case, that the jury should have been sequestered continually since the outset,” Nelson said, adding that he’d even been advised of two fictional TV shows that depicted events similar to those in the case.

“If you can’t even watch your favorite Thursday night television program, what good does that do?” he asked when Cahill mentioned that he’d told jurors not to watch the news.

Cahill had harsh words for Waters but ultimately denied a mistrial. 

“I’ll give you that Congresswoman Waters may have given you something on appeal,” he said. 

“I wish elected officials would stop talking about this case, particularly in a manner that is disrespectful to the rule of law and the judicial branch in our function,” he later added. “Their failure to do so is abhorrent, but I don’t think it has presented us with additional information that would prejudice the jury.”

Cahill denied a mistrial. After Chauvin waived his right for aggravated sentencing factors to be decided by a jury, Cahill dismissed the case for the day.

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