The former Minneapolis police officer’s trial picked up where it left off after an early close the day before, with condemnations of his behavior from an LAPD veteran.
MINNEAPOLIS (CN) — Having already heard from several representatives of the Minneapolis Police Department, prosecutors in Derek Chauvin’s murder trial started working up the jurisdictional chain on Wednesday, questioning one of the state investigators who interviewed Chauvin following George Floyd’s death in May 2020 after putting a use-of-force expert on the stand.
Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank had just gotten around to asking Special Agent James Reyerson of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension about the night of May 25 when Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill called a lunch break. Reyerson, who joined the BCA in 2018 after stints in the NYPD, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the corporate world, was called to meet Chauvin and his fellow officers at Minneapolis City Hall around 9:45 p.m. to begin his investigation of the incident.
There he took a photo of Chauvin and made estimates of some of his personal details. Reyerson told the jury that he’d estimated Chauvin, a somewhat diminutive man, at about 140 pounds. Chauvin’s body armor and equipment, he said, added between 30 and 40 pounds to the weight he applied to Floyd.
That weight and how Chauvin used it was a major focus of the morning’s testimony, which picked up where Tuesday’s session left off with prosecutors questioning LAPD Sergeant Jody Stiger. Stiger is the first expert witness to testify in Chauvin’s trial, and prosecutor Steve Schleicher touted his experience reviewing over 2,500 use-of-force incidents.
On Tuesday, Stiger expressed the opinion that Chauvin and his colleagues Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng should have stopped their use of force after Floyd was handcuffed and prone.
“Initially, when Mr. Floyd was being placed in the back seat of the vehicle, he was actively resisting officers, so at that point the officers were justified in using force,” he said on Tuesday. “However, once he was placed in the prone position on the ground, he slowly ceased his resistance and at that point the officers — ex-officers, I should say — they should have slowed down or stopped their force as well.”
On Wednesday, Schleicher and Stiger sought to shore up the argument that Floyd died of positional asphyxia, the risk of which Stiger said rises when subjects are handcuffed and prone.
“Positional asphyxia can occur even if there is no body weight on a subject. Just being in that position, and especially being handcuffed, creates a situation where the person has a difficult time breathing, which can cause death,” he said. “When you add body weight to that, it just increases the possibility of death.”
On cross-examination, Chauvin’s attorney Eric Nelson pushed Stiger to acknowledge a portion of a body-worn camera video in which Chauvin appeared to have his knee on Floyd’s shoulder blades, not his back. He compared it to the same time in a video taken by 17-year old bystander Darnella Frazier, which went viral on Facebook and appeared to show Chauvin on Floyd’s neck the entire time.
“You would agree that at this point, based on everything we’ve seen in the photographs, on the left hand side, it appears that Mr. Chauvin’s knee is on Mr. Floyd’s neck?” Nelson asked.
“Yes. more of the base of the neck.”
“And from Officer Kueng’s body worn camera, it appears that it’s more on the base of the neck, in between the shoulder blades.”
Stiger hesitantly agreed.
On redirect, Schleicher pointed out that the risks of positional asphyxia weren’t only related to pressure on the neck.
“To clarify a little bit on the known risks that you testified to, with relation to positional asphyxia, is the risk related to the pressure on the neck or to the pressure on the body?” the prosecutor asked.
“It’s more the pressure on the body,” Stiger responded. He also confirmed that after handcuffing a subject, the proper protocol to avoid positional asphyxia is to place the handcuffed person on their side or sit them up.
A pool reporter observed that jurors also took note of a discussion on “pain compliance,” a method of controlling a subject that Stiger described as “a technique that officers use to get a subject to comply with their commands. As they comply, then they are rewarded with the reduction of pain.”
He went on to point out that by squeezing Floyd’s hand behind his back, Chauvin appeared to be using this method. The handcuffs, Stiger said, were not “double-locked” and he could hear them ratcheting tighter at various points in the video. Pain could also be applied in that position, he said, by squeezing a subject’s knuckles together.
“What if there’s not opportunity for compliance?” Schleicher asked.
“Then at that point, it’s just pain.”
Nelson got a few chances Wednesday morning to push his own theory of the case, which has so far involved discussing the impact of crowds and other external stressors on police conduct and the possibility that Floyd died of a drug overdose. He barraged Stiger with hypotheticals on cross-examination, asking about how officers consider external factors like crowds, or being in a high crime area.
“It’s reasonable for an officer to rely upon that information in response to a call,” Nelson said. Stiger confirmed that.
Asking specifically about the 911 call that summoned Chauvin to the scene, Nelson sought to establish that use of force was a foregone conclusion on the call.
“The testimony of the 911 officer is that she heard screaming and scuffling… that prompted her to dispatch a second car,” Nelson said. He asked Stiger to agree that a “reasonable officer would have a heightened sense of concern about this call,” and he did.
“So when Officer Chauvin arrived,” Nelson continued, “he knew that some degree of force was being used. He knew that other officers were there. He knew that he was being dispatched to back up a situation. He knew that the individual suspect was possibly impaired, based on the dispatch, and he knew that he was… 6 to 6 and a half feet tall.”
“He had a reasonable amount of information that a reasonable police officer can rely on to inform his or her next steps,” the attorney added.
He also raised the idea of “awful but lawful” police conduct, which holds that police have legal leeway to do things that appear ugly or unpleasant to laypeople by virtue of their profession. Schleicher took that opportunity to make his own play on the slogan.
“If it’s not reasonable, and it’s not lawful, then it’s just awful?” he asked. Stiger agreed.
After Stiger left the stand, the testimony turned to the aftermath of Floyd’s death. Reyerson discussed taking over the case when it became clear that the BCA needed to investigate it as a “critical incident.” After that, two of the BCA’s forensic experts, along with a drug lab chemist from Pennsylvania, discussed what they found at the scene, in the car Floyd was in before his arrest and in the squad car police briefly placed him in.
Reyerson discussed the depth of the investigation, which he told Nelson included over 200 interviews and about a dozen search warrants.
“A lot of that information ultimately has no bearing on this case, would you agree? Meaning that interviews were conducted of people who didn’t see anything,” Nelson asked.
Reyerson said he didn’t see it that way. “I would say that our investigation was very thorough,” he replied.
Nelson also sought to get ahead of a question some of Chauvin’s detractors speculated on after pills were found on a second search of the squad car in March.
“It’s common… for defense attorneys to view particular pieces of evidence. It’s permissible. And that happened in this case,” he said. Reyerson agreed.
“You’re not suggesting that the defense put pieces of pills in the squad car?” Nelson continued.
“No, I’m not suggesting that,” Reyerson replied.
Nelson also asked Reyerson to examine a clip of Floyd saying something unclear to the officers apprehending him. He’d done the same with Stiger on Wednesday morning.
“Does it sound like he’s saying, ‘I ate too many drugs?’” Nelson asked.
Reyerson said that it did. After another watch of the preceding footage, however, Schleicher asked him if it still sounded that way. Reyerson said that it didn’t, and he’d instead heard, “I ain’t do no drugs.”
The prosecution has not disputed that Floyd struggled with an opioid addiction and appeared intoxicated at the time of his apprehension, but has been working against Nelson’s contention that drugs killed him. That argument hung over the testimonies of BCA forensic scientists Mackenzie Anderson and Breahna Giles and of Susan Neith, a forensic chemist from an outside lab which tested pills found in the cars.
Anderson, explaining why a pill and residue in the squad car had been missed on a first pass, said that at the time she wasn’t aware that she should have been looking for drugs in the squad. She’d tested blood found in the squad car and eventually the pills, she said, and found Floyd’s DNA in both.
Giles, discussing her tests of the pills, occasionally flustered Frank with her scientific precision. Two tablets found in the car Floyd had been driving, she said, were marked as containing oxycodone and acetaminophen, but actually contained methamphetamine and fentanyl. For other tablets, however, she said she could not confirm that fentanyl was in the tablets.
“Per our policies, and our procedures, there are certain requirements that we have to conclusively identify a substance,” she said. “Methamphetamine was the only substance that we identified.”
A pipe also found in the squad, Giles said, tested positive for THC, the primary active ingredient of marijuana. No actual marijuana plant matter was found, she said.
Neith, whose testimony finished off the day, was a little more willing to discuss the topic in layman’s terms. She said she’d found less than 1% of fentanyl in three pills she received from the BCA, and between 2-3% methamphetamine. Two of the pills were in the car Floyd was in, and the other was from the squad.
Questioned by Assistant Attorney General Erin Eldridge, Neith said those were very low numbers for methamphetamine but standard for fentanyl.
“In my personal experience, when I’ve quantitated fentanyl in powders or tablets, generally we see levels that are less than 1%,” she said, adding sometimes it could be slightly higher. “Generally, we see higher levels in methamphetamine samples that I have tested,” typically between 90-100%.