Disputes over the admissibility of an experienced eyewitness’ testimony were put on hold after an internet outage cut off the day’s proceedings.
MINNEAPOLIS (CN) — The first three witnesses in former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s murder trial for the death of George Floyd testified Monday afternoon, with attorneys for both sides battling technical problems to set the scene of Floyd’s deadly arrest of Memorial Day last year.
Prosecutors called all three witnesses, and slowly worked their way through three different perspectives on the scene at 38th and Chicago on the late evening of May 25th. They started from a high vantage point, questioning a 911 dispatcher who sent Chauvin and three other officers to the scene and watched events unfold on a security camera across the street.
She was followed by a Speedway convenience store clerk, who filmed the arrest from her workplace across the street, and by a mixed martial artist, wrestler and security guard who filmed the officers and confronted them about their tactics during the arrest.
Prosecutors Matthew Frank and Steve Schleicher, who took over after their colleague Jerry Blackwell’s opening statement, walked their witnesses through videos they were watching or shooting at the time of Floyd’s death.
Eric Nelson, Chauvin’s attorney, spent much of his cross-examination seeking details on Chauvin’s surroundings and the bystanders on scene, apparently working to emphasize the chaotic and increasingly tense atmosphere around 38th and Chicago that evening.
First to the stand after opening statements was Jena Scurry, the Minneapolis dispatcher who first sent former officers J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane to Cup Foods for a call about a counterfeit $20 bill. Minneapolis Police Department veteran Chauvin, who had been on the force for 19 years, and nine-year officer Tou Thao arrived to the scene a few minutes later to assist the two rookies in an encounter that ended with Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes. The exact figure is disputed, but prosecutors cited 9 minutes and 29 seconds in opening statements.
Scurry said she’d first radioed Chauvin and Thao, knowing that Kueng and Lane were tied up with another call. Frank led her line-by-line through the calls made to the scene and showed an MPD security-camera video she’d been watching glimpses of on a monitor of the dispatch center.
Nelson requested that she confirm the response to two emergency medical services calls, the first for bleeding around Floyd’s nose and the second a “code 3” call as Floyd’s condition worsened.
“Code 3 means ‘get here as quickly as you possibly can,’ right?” he said.
“Lights and sirens.”
He also quizzed her on her call to a police sergeant, which she said she made out of an abundance of caution while watching the feed.
“You can call me a snitch if you want to, but we have the cameras up for 320’s call,” she said in the call, referencing Kueng and Lane’s squad car number. “Over at Cup Foods. I don’t know if they have used force or not. They got something out to back up the squad, and all of them sat on this man.”
Nelson prodded Scurry on the necessity of that call. He pointed out that by the time she’d finished the call, she couldn’t see the officers on the camera anymore. He also emphasized that the sergeant hadn’t recognized it as needing a report.
“When you ultimately called Sgt. Pluger, you said ‘I don’t know if this was a use of force or not,” he said. “And Sgt. Pluger told you that it could be just a takedown. And a takedown would not require a supervisor.”
Scurry confirmed that. Frank pushed back on Nelson’s line of questioning when he got another chance to talk to her.
“As you sit here today, have you changed your mind about the reasons why you called Sgt. Plueger when you did?” he asked.
“No,” she replied.
Scurry was followed by Alisha Oyler, a clerk at the Speedway convenience store across the street from Cup Foods who filmed Floyd’s arrest from her spot at the counter. Oyler, 23 with blue tips on dyed-black hair, was visibly nervous throughout her testimony, hiding her face and giggling when she heard herself on video and rarely giving more than one-word responses.
Often, when questioned about the events she witnessed or an interview with an FBI agent afterward, she said she couldn’t remember. At one point she said she was dodging cars in the parking lot while she filmed.
She did, however, remember why she filmed Floyd’s arrest.
“Because I always see the police, and they’re always messing with people,” she said. “And it’s wrong, and it’s not right.”
The tensest portion of Monday’s testimony came from Donald Williams, whose time on the stand was cut short by an internet outage. Williams, a 33-year-old security guard and wrestling and MMA trainer, arrived at Cup Foods to see Chauvin with his knee already on Floyd’s neck. He was one of the more vocal people heard in the videos that circulated after Floyd’s death, admonishing Chauvin for using what he called a “blood choke.”
Williams, who had recently returned from a fishing trip at the time, made graphic comparisons between Floyd in his final moments and the three bass he’d taken home alive in a bag earlier that day.
“Like the fish in the bag, his eyes went pale and slowly rolled up to the back of his head,” Williams said.
As evocative as that image was, the testimony that got Williams in trouble was related to his expertise as a martial artist. Nelson moved early in jury selection to have testimony related to Williams’ work in martial arts excluded entirely. Cahill very narrowly granted the motion, allowing testimony about Williams’ experience and expertise but ruling out discussions of the martial artist’s opinions on whether the actions he saw caused Floyd’s death.
Williams was talkative throughout his testimony, occasionally taking nudges from Cahill to stay on topic. He stumbled over the cause-of-death line when discussing his assessment that Chauvin had deliberately turned the blood choke, in which pressure is applied to the side of the neck to restrict blood flow to and from the brain, to what he called a “kill choke.” He didn’t get a chance to expand on the difference before Cahill stopped him and told the jury to disregard that testimony.
Another comment, in which Williams said Chauvin met his eye as if to acknowledge the “blood choke” comment he made at the scene, was sustained.
Williams’ testimony didn’t last long past that, however. An internet outage cut media and other viewers out of the livestreamed trial, and Cahill ended the proceedings for the day in light of the issues after a brief discussion with Williams about what he could and could not testify about.
He’s expected to return to court Tuesday morning.