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Sunday, December 10, 2023 | Back issues
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Prosecutors Wind Down Case Against Chauvin in Shadow of More Protests

A cardiologist testified Monday that George Floyd's death was caused by asphyxia, but local attention was fixed on a suburban police shooting that sparked protests and looting Sunday night.

MINNEAPOLIS (CN) — The third week of testimony in Derek Chauvin’s murder trial for the death of George Floyd began Monday with several hotly discussed motions and continued medical testimony from a prominent cardiologist. 

Dr. Jonathan Rich, a Chicago cardiologist who also teaches at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, took the stand Monday morning to assess the condition of Floyd’s heart and the possibility that he succumbed to a heart attack or overdose. Rich ruled out both. 

“I believe that Mr. George Floyd’s death was entirely preventable,” Rich said, affirming statements by earlier medical experts that asphyxia, brought on by the hold Chauvin and two of his colleagues applied to Floyd, caused his death. 

He also discounted defense attorney Eric Nelson’s suggestions that Floyd died of an arrhythmia or other cardiac event.

“What I found is that [Floyd’s] heart, architecturally, looked normal,” he said. “He had a description of coronary artery disease, which I found notable…. I certainly didn’t find it unusual, because statistically, coronary artery disease is so common-- not to scare anyone, but statistically, many of us in this room have it.” 

Rich said he hadn’t seen any of the telltale signs of heart attacks or arrhythmias, like complaints of chest pain or dizziness. Floyd’s history of high blood pressure, he added, wasn’t necessarily safe overall but put him at risk of a stroke rather than a cardiac event. His narrowed coronary artery, Rich said, could actually have encouraged his heart to create auxiliary pathways.

“The heart is fascinating in what it does. It develops what are called coronary collaterals,” he said, when an artery is badly blocked. “It’s actually why you are more likely to die of a heart attack with a lesser blockage.”

Nelson, on cross-examination, brought up some of the same points he took to the state’s previous medical experts. He asked Rich if there was a safe dosage of street methamphetamine, a small amount of which was found in Floyd’s blood in a toxicology investigation. Rich said there wasn’t, and agreed that meth could work to constrict blood vessels. He also said that the frequency and length of use mattered.

“If you smoke cigarettes for 50 years, you’re going to have more problems than if you smoke a pack every once in a while,” he said. 

A paraganglioma, or small tumor, found in Floyd after his death also didn’t raise flags for Rich, he said. If the tumor was, as some can, causing surges in adrenaline, Floyd and others would likely have noticed changes in behavior or excessive sweating. 

Prosecutors are expected to wrap up their case Monday afternoon with “spark-of-life” testimony from a member of Floyd’s family, allowed as an opportunity for those who knew Floyd to humanize him to the jury. Which family member will testify is still unclear. 

In this image from video, Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill discusses motions before the court Monday, April 12, 2021, in the trial of former Minneapolis police Officer Derek 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)

Rich’s testimony was delayed slightly by arguments over several other issues. Chief among these was the possibility of testimony from Morries Hall, a friend of Floyd’s who was with him on May 25, 2020, just before his deadly arrest. Hall has been reluctant to testify, and after receiving a subpoena public defender Adrienne Cousins notified the court that Hall would use his Fifth Amendment rights wherever possible. Judge Peter Cahill, in a later hearing, allowed for Nelson and Cousins to hash out what testimony is and isn’t subject to that privilege outside the hearing of the jury. 

Nelson pointed out that Hall had already made statements to investigators about his involvement in the case, and that prosecutors had the power to grant him immunity. Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank argued that Hall’s statement was “very self-serving,” and that he and his team would work to impeach his testimony. Cahill said he’d rule on the issue Monday afternoon. 

Another police killing loomed over Monday’s proceedings in Minneapolis: that of Daunte Wright, 20, who was shot and killed by police during a traffic stop in the nearby city of Brooklyn Center around 2 p.m. on Sunday. Police said Wright had been stopped for a traffic violation when officers discovered he had an outstanding warrant. When Wright tried to get back into his car, an officer shot him, according to police.

Brooklyn Center Police Chief Tim Gannon told press that Wright had been stopped for expired tabs, and that the shooting was an accidental discharge. The officer who shot Wright can be heard on body camera footage shouting “taser, taser, taser,” but was shown holding a handgun and shooting Wright once in the chest or abdomen. “Oh, shit. I just shot him,” she could be heard saying. 

News of Wright’s death sparked protests at the site of the shooting and a march to the Brooklyn Center Police Department, where police attempted to disperse the crowd with gas and “less-lethal” munitions. The confrontation expanded and lasted into the early morning, enabling looting and other crime around Brooklyn Center and Minneapolis as law enforcement agencies from across the metro area rushed to back up the suburban police department. 

The unrest led Nelson to request that jurors in the Chauvin case be sequestered. The attorney argued that renewed civil unrest could cause jurors more concern about the impacts of their decision on the outside world.

“This incident last night highlights, and I think brings it to the forefront of the jury’s mindset, that a verdict in this case is going to have consequences,” Nelson said. He also asked that some jurors be subjected to additional voir dire to probe whether they’d heard news of the Wright shooting and subsequent unrest. 

Prosecutors argued against that. “As counsel pointed out, it’s a different case,” prosecutor Steve Schleicher said. “We can’t have every single world event that might have an impact… be a reason to call back and voir dire all the jurors.” 

Cahill ultimately denied the motion, saying that his initial order to anonymize the jury was meant to prevent harassment or tampering, and that he still hadn’t seen that. As to the possible fear of a not-guilty verdict sparking more protests and riots, the judge said, “I think sequestering would only aggravate that.” 

The Wright shooting also brought a stepped-up police presence to the courtroom, with pool reporters noting that the Minnesota National Guard had increased their presence at the Hennepin County Government Center. Democratic Governor Tim Walz activated the Guard on Sunday night to respond to the Brooklyn Center protests. 

Categories / Criminal, Regional, Trials

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