Prosecutors and the defense team for former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin told dramatically different stories of George Floyd’s death last Memorial Day.
MINNEAPOLIS (CN) — The murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the death of George Floyd began in earnest Monday morning.
Attorneys for Chauvin and the prosecution laid out frameworks for their cases in opening statements and presented some key evidence, including the viral video of Floyd’s arrest and death that sparked protests and riots around the world in the summer of 2020.
Chauvin faces second- and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter charges for Floyd’s death. He is on trial alone after his case was separated from those of the three other officers involved in the May 25 arrest. Those officers – Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng – face aiding-and-abetting charges and are set to go to trial in August.
Protesters gathered around the heavily fortified Hennepin County Courthouse in downtown Minneapolis in advance of the trial, as did the Floyd family, attorney Ben Crump and the Reverend Al Sharpton.
“This murder case is not hard when you watch the torture video of George Floyd. And we have to call it what it is: it was torture,” Crump told reporters ahead of opening statements.
The Floyd family reached a $27 million settlement with the city of Minneapolis early in March, a development that threw a wrench into jury selection. Cahill dismissed two already-seated jurors on March 17 after they said news of the settlement would make it difficult to judge the case impartially.
“Black people in America should not only have the right to get partial justice. We have every right to get whole justice– civil justice and criminal justice,” Crump said. “We’re not asking for anything extraordinary– we’re asking for equal justice under the law.”
The family led a crowd in 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silent kneeling as a comment on the length of time Chauvin spent kneeling on Floyd’s neck before his death. That figure was widely cited in the early months after Floyd’s death based on a bystander’s video which went viral. Documents filed by prosecutors have cited other footage to allege that Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for at least 9 minutes and possibly as long as 9 minutes and 30 seconds.
Attorney Jerry Blackwell of Blackwell Burke, aiding the prosecution, cited 9 minutes and 29 seconds shortly afterward in opening statements.
“You will be able to hear Mr. Floyd saying ‘please, I can’t breathe. Please, man. Please,’ in these 9 minutes and 29 seconds,” he said.
He pointed out that Floyd’s cries stopped after 4 minutes and 45 seconds, and that in the following 53 seconds Floyd was involuntarily convulsing from lack of oxygen. He argued Chauvin departed dramatically from Minneapolis Police Department policy, which requires that prone-positioned subjects be placed in a recovery position as soon as possible.
Blackwell also sought to distance the case from police-abolitionist rhetoric that gained prominence after Floyd’s death.
“There are any number of things that this case is not about…. One of the things this case is not about is all police or all policing,” he said. “This case is about Mr. Derek Chauvin.”
The attorney acknowledged that officers often have to make quick decisions in dangerous situations, but said Chauvin’s hold on Floyd was not one of those instances.
“This case is not about split-second decision-making. In 9 minutes and 29 seconds, there are 479 seconds, and not a split second among them,” Blackwell said.
Eric Nelson of Halberg Criminal Defense is defending Chauvin, with funding from the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association. His opening statement focused on the reasonable-doubt standard, and in it he argued that Floyd died of a cardiac arrhythmia brought on by drug use, despite Chauvin and his colleagues’ efforts to provide care.
“At the end of this case we’re going to spend a lot of time talking about doubt. But for purposes of my remarks this morning, I want to talk about reason and common sense, and how that applies to evidence that you’re about to see during the course of this trial,” he said.
Nelson pointed to Floyd’s interactions with clerks at Cup Foods, who eventually called police after Floyd refused to return cigarettes he paid for with what the clerks suspected was a counterfeit bill. The store staff, Nelson said, had noted that Floyd appeared intoxicated, and others sitting in a car with Floyd across the street admitted he had taken pills shortly before the incident. These pills, he argued, were “speedballs,” or mixtures of opiates and stimulants, and similar pills were found in the back of the squad car upon a second search of the car.
“The evidence will show that Mr. Floyd died of a cardiac arrhythmia that occurred as a result of hypertension, his coronary disease, an ingestion of methamphetamine and fentanyl, and the adrenaline flowing through his body, all of which acted to further compromise an already compromised heart,” the defense attorney said, also pointing to a number of heart and adrenal conditions Floyd suffered from.
Blackwell had addressed this point in his own statement.
“George Floyd lived for years, day in and day out, every day with all of these conditions until one day, on May 25,” he said. “And that was the only day he didn’t survive.”
Nelson said paramedics arrived on the scene just 19 minutes after Lane and Kueng did, and drew attention to the height difference between Chauvin and Floyd. Floyd stood at 6 feet 3 inches tall, and Chauvin is 5 feet 9 inches.
“When you see these videos, pulled back from afar, you will be able to see a MPLS police squad car rocking back and forth, back and forth, during this struggle, so much so that it catches the attention of 911 dispatcher Jena Scurry. This was not an easy struggle,” Nelson said.
Following opening statements, Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank took over for Blackwell. Frank has led the prosecution since Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office joined the case early in June of 2020. Frank called Scurry to the stand as the state’s first witness in the trial, which is expected to continue through much of April.
Frank played the call Scurry made dispatching officers Kueng and Lane to Cup Foods, eliciting a rare visible reaction from Chauvin. The former officer has spent much of his trial with a neutral but focused expression, often taking notes on a pad before him. The call that sent him to 38th and Chicago brought his eyebrows up, with his eyes moving and blinking rapidly.
Scurry, questioned by Frank, described looking at a video of the scene from a camera across the street. Frank showed the video, with Scurry pointing out the parts she’d been watching. Seeing Chauvin, Kueng and Lane kneeling on Floyd from the back, she said, she became unsettled when she looked back minutes later and the scene hadn’t changed.
“I first asked if the screen had frozen,” she said.
Asked how she felt, she expanded on her discomfort.
“We don’t get these videos often… we very rarely get incidents where police are actively on the scene. And they had changed. They had come from the back of the squad to the ground, and my instincts were telling me that something was wrong,” she said. “It was a gut instinct of, in the incident, something’s not going right. Whether it be they need more assistance, or if… just something wasn’t right. I don’t know how to explain it.”
Scurry made a call to a sergeant, she said, and Frank played it.
“You can call me a snitch if you want to, but we have the cameras up for 320’s call…. 320 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,” Scurry said in the call, her Minnesota accent and mannerisms coming out a little thicker than in court.
“We don’t get to ever see it, so when we see it, we go ‘well, that looks a little different,'” she continued.
Asked what she meant by “snitch,” Scurry explained that it wasn’t strictly in her duties as a dispatcher to inform the sergeant of uses of force. When Frank asked why she then made the call, she said she wanted to voice her concerns about the situation.
Frank finished questioning Scurry just before the court’s afternoon break. Nelson will take a turn at cross-examination when the trial goes back into session.