Tension and tears filled testimony from witnesses to George Floyd’s death in the landmark police-brutality trial.
MINNEAPOLIS (CN) — The second day of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s murder trial for the death of George Floyd kicked off with a morning of tense, emotional testimony from some of those who watched Floyd’s fatal arrest from the street.
The second day of trial picked up where the first left off, with the testimony of eyewitness Donald Williams. Williams, a security guard and mixed martial artist, said on Monday he drove to Cup Foods on May 25, 2020, for something to drink after a day of fishing and saw Chauvin and his fellow officers arresting Floyd as he walked up to the store. He recognized Chauvin’s grip on Floyd’s neck as what he called a “blood choke,” in which a choker puts pressure on the side of a person’s neck in order to restrict blood flow to and from the brain.
That testimony veered into the inadmissible when Williams discussed the distinction between that and what he called a “kill choke,” which he claimed he saw Chauvin using. Chauvin’s attorney Eric Nelson moved early in jury selection to prevent Williams from testifying about his mixed martial arts training at all, but Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill largely denied that motion, allowing any testimony that did not go to Floyd’s cause of death. As Cahill went to explain that distinction Monday with Williams, however, a power surge cut off several live streams of the trial, leading the judge to shut proceedings down for the day in the interest of maintaining transparency.
Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank returned to questioning Williams Tuesday morning, asking him about his interactions with Tou Thao, an officer who stood near the curb and kept a growing crowd away from Chauvin and Floyd, and a 911 call he made to report the incident after an ambulance carried Floyd away.
“I just was really trying to keep my professionalism and make sure I speak out for Floyd’s life, because I felt like he was in very much danger,” he told Frank.
He mentioned Thao pushing him back onto the curb at one point, and said he was fearful of the police.
“I did call the police on the police,” Williams said of the call.
“And why did you do that?” Frank asked.
“Because I believed I witnessed a murder,” he replied. He said he didn’t attempt to make that report to the officers at the scene because “we didn’t have no connection. I spoke to them, but not on a connection of a human-being relationship.”
In the call, Williams could be heard saying “Officer 987 killed a citizen in front of a Chicago store. He just pretty much killed this guy who wasn’t resisting arrest. He had his knee on the dude’s neck the whole time…. The dude was not responsive when the ambulance came and got him.” Chauvin’s badge number at the time was 1087, and Williams confirmed in court that he had meant Chauvin.
The operator asked him if he wanted to speak to a supervisor, and sent him to an automated operator. Before he reached a supervisor, however, he spoke with Thao.
“Y’all murderers, bro, y’all murderers, Thao. You’re gonna kill yourself, I know it. Two more years, y’all gonna shoot yourself,” Williams said on the call.
When Nelson’s turn to question Williams came, the witness’s demeanor changed and he became visibly wary of the attorney’s questions. Nelson started with several questions about Williams’ background in security and martial arts, asking about the details of chokehold use in competitive wrestling and MMA and the distinctions between a blood choke and an air choke. He asked whether a blood choke had to put pressure on both sides of the neck, a contention Williams objected to. He also asked whether Williams had ever had conversations with his MMA opponents while choking them out. Williams said he hadn’t.
Things got tenser when Nelson came to questions about Williams’ statements at the scene. The defense attorney spent much of Tuesday’s testimony working to establish an image of an unruly crowd surrounding and intimidating Chauvin, a tack that put Williams visibly on edge.
“You called him a bum, at least 13 times,” Nelson said.
“If that’s what you got, from the video. Thirteen,” Williams replied.
“You called him a ‘fuckin’ pussy-ass bitch.’”
“If that’s what you heard,” Williams said, looking away from the attorney.
Nelson tried again, asking, “Did you tell [Thao] ‘I dare you to touch me like that again, I swear I’ll slap the fuck out of both of you?’”
Williams confirmed that, but continued to deny it when Nelson asked if he was angry. “You can’t paint me out to be angry,” Williams repeated several times.
Asked about his statement to Thao during the phone call, Williams objected to Nelson’s use of the word “hope” in his questioning.
“I didn’t say I hoped he was gonna shoot himself. I said that you will shoot yourself, within the next two years, for doing what you did,” the witness said. “I didn’t say hope. I don’t hope death on anyone. The Bible doesn’t allow that.”
Returning to Frank, Williams calmed down visibly. The prosecutor pointed out some major distinctions between this situation and an MMA fight.
“In MMA fighting, do you ever have a situation where your opponent is handcuffed behind the back?” he asked. “Do you ever have a situation where there are three people fighting against one?”
“Never,” Williams replied to both questions.
Discussions about how Williams used de-escalation tactics in his work as a security guard and whether he saw Thao or Chauvin use similar tactics led Cahill to call a sidebar. Shortly afterward, Williams was dismissed and the prosecution called their star witness, Darnella Frazier.
Frazier took the bystander video that went viral on Facebook in the aftermath of Floyd’s death. She came to Cup Foods with her cousin that day for snacks, and the pair were the first bystanders on the scene in front of the store. She was 17 at the time, and in keeping with a morning order from Cahill, she was addressed by her first name and not shown on video.
Attorney Jerry Blackwell handled the prosecution’s questioning of Frazier and her younger cousin. Using surveillance video from an MPD camera as a guide, he walked her through her recollections of the incident.
Frazier was less talkative than Williams, but gave a similar version of events. Bystanders, she said, didn’t threaten or get violent with the police, in part because Thao and Chauvin reached for cans of mace whenever someone tried to get close.
“I felt like I was in danger when he did that. It rubbed me the wrong way. I didn’t understand why they would do that — what we did to…make him do that,” she said. “I don’t understand why the mace was even needed at all.”
She said she’d seen Chauvin apparently shove his knee harder into Floyd’s neck when bystanders objected.
“It seemed as if he didn’t care what we were saying. It didn’t change anything he was doing.”
Nelson, on his turn, continued his efforts to paint a chaotic scene at 38th Street and Chicago Avenue. He asked her to confirm that the bystanders became louder over time, which she confirmed. He also asked about the safety of her neighborhood at night.
“Would you agree that you had previously told members of the prosecution team that at night, the neighborhood can be a little bit more dangerous?” the defense attorney asked.
“Some nights,” she said. “Any area can have some type of crime from here or there.”
Blackwell returned to questioning Frazier shortly thereafter. “On May 25, when you were there, were you at Cup Foods at night?” he asked. She said she was not.
“Did you see anyone from across the street, or from 38th Street, do anything to threaten or attack Mr. Chauvin?” he continued. She denied that too.
He later followed up on Nelson’s closing question, about whether filming and posting the video of Floyd’s deadly arrest changed her life. “Would you tell the ladies and gentlemen how your viewing, experiencing, what happened to George Floyd, has affected your life?” Blackwell asked.
“When I look at George Floyd, I look at my dad. I look at my brothers, I look at my cousins, my uncles, because they are all Black. I have a Black father, I have a Black brother, I have Black friends,” she said, audibly tearing up. “And I look at that, and I look at how that could have been one of them. It’s been nights when I stayed up apologizing. Apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more, and not physically interacting, and not saving his life. It’s not what I should have done. It’s what he should have done.”
Cahill and Blackwell both cut her off at that statement for inadmissibility, and Blackwell turned to the morning’s third witness.
Frazier’s cousin was 9 years old when she walked to Cup Foods with her older cousin for snacks. Her testimony was brief. She didn’t recognize Chauvin until he stood and took his mask off, but pointed him out, then said that watching him with his knee on Floyd’s neck made her “sad and kinda mad.”
Asked to expand, she said: “It felt like he was stopping his breathing, and it was kinda like, hurting him.”
Nelson declined to question the child at all, leading Cahill to dismiss her and call an afternoon recess. Two more minors or then-minors are expected to testify Tuesday afternoon.