Lawyers laid out their cases on Monday in the trial of the former Minneapolis police officer charged with killing George Floyd, whose death ignited protests against racial injustice around the world.
While prosecutors sought to narrow jurors’ focus on the roughly nine minutes that Derek Chauvin restrained Floyd, the former police officer’s defence zoomed out on a sweeping investigation with nearly 50,000 pieces of evidence, with questions over the cause of Floyd’s death and what constitutes reasonable use of force.
Prosecutor Jerry Blackwell said Chauvin betrayed his badge when he used excessive force to subdue Floyd.
“You can believe your eyes,” he said. “It’s homicide. It’s murder.”
Defence attorney Eric Nelson countered that “Derek Chauvin did exactly what he had been trained to do over his 19-year career. The use of force is not attractive, but it is a necessary component of policing.”
Chauvin was filmed kneeling on Floyd’s neck while he cried out 27 times that he could not breathe. Prosecutors took the rare step of filing criminal charges, and Chauvin’s case will be one of the most closely watched police misconduct trials in a generation.
Both attorneys underlined that, despite intense public interest, Chauvin’s trial is separate from larger social questions about racism and accountability in US policing.
“I agree with counsel for the state,” Nelson said. “There is no political or social cause in this courtroom.”
Chauvin is charged with second- and third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. He has pleaded not guilty.
Minnesota attorney-general Keith Ellison has cautioned that winning a conviction will be difficult. The US justice system requires prosecutors to prove guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt”, and many jurors typically trust police officers more than other witnesses.
A key piece of evidence for prosecutors is video of Floyd’s death, which Blackwell showed as part of his opening statement. On May 25, police arrested Floyd for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill, and Chauvin restrained Floyd by pinning him to the ground with a knee on his neck. A bystander filmed the arrest and then posted it online, triggering widespread outrage and protests.
Chauvin and the three other officers at the scene who did not intervene were fired. Thomas Lane, Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao are charged with aiding and abetting murder and scheduled to go on trial in August. Keung’s attorney has said he intends to plead not guilty.
Both prosecution and defence acknowledged in their opening statements that one of the issues at the heart of the case is the exact cause of Floyd’s death. An autopsy by the Hennepin County Medical Examiner, which ruled Floyd’s death a homicide, found evidence of fentanyl and methamphetamine in his body and said he suffered “cardiopulmonary arrest”.
An independent autopsy commissioned by Floyd’s family cited the cause of death as asphyxiation.
Nelson drew attention to Floyd’s drug use and said the evidence would show he died of a cardiac arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat. But Blackwell said in his opening statement that such a death happens instantaneously, whereas “Mr Floyd did not die an instant death. He died one breath at a time.”
During the first day, the jury heard testimony from emergency service dispatcher Jena Scurry and security guard Donald Williams, who has trained as a wrestler and mixed martial arts fighter.
Scurry said she watched the incident unfold from an on-site camera. A “gut instinct . . . that’s something’s not right” prompted her to flag the event to a sergeant, she said, adding that she did not mean to be “a snitch” but wanted to know if additional help was needed at the scene.
Williams said he stumbled across the incident on a trip to a nearby convenience store. He told jurors that, based on his training, he identified Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck as a dangerous “blood choke”.
“You can tell when someone is getting choked out,” he said. “You could hear [Floyd], see him struggling, actually gasp for air.”
Supporters of the Floyd family held a prayer service on Sunday night at Greater Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Minneapolis. Philonise Floyd, George Floyd’s brother, addressed the congregation, saying that neither Rodney King, beaten by Los Angeles Police Department officers in 1991, or Eric Garner, who died after being put in a chokehold while being arrested by New York police in 2014, received justice. He said he hoped events would be different with Chauvin.
“Give me a conviction,” he said. “Give the world what they want to see.”