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Emotional first week of Derek Chauvin murder trial

It was an emotional week for the family of George Floyd as prosecutors presented their case against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. The jailed cop who kept his knee on Floyd’s neck over nine minutes before he died stirred up fresh emotions in a courtroom where the infamous video and intense testimony took center stage as the long-awaited trial began.

Chauvin, 45, has pleaded not guilty to charges of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaugh- ter.  His trial comes 10 months after Floyd’s death sparked a summer of protests around the world and renewed distrust in law enforcement agencies in Minneapolis.

Five men and nine women make up the 14-member jury that will decide Chauvin’s fate. Of the 14 jurors, eight are white, four are Black and two are mixed race.

Prosecutors called their first three witnesses and began laying out their case Monday, March 29, and showed the viral video that showed Floyd dying and pleading for his life as Chauvin kept his knee on his neck.

A member of the prosecution team, Special Assistant Attorney General Jerry Blackwell said “Chauvin betrayed his badge,” after he took the oath when he became an officer.

Blackwell said Chauvin used excessive force when he restrained Floyd in front of the Cup Foods grocery store in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020. Blackwell also said there is a misconception that Floyd was held face down under Chauvin’s knee for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Blackwell said it was actually 43 seconds longer than that—9 minutes and 29 seconds.

“Citizens who are under arrest should never be put in the prone position except only momentarily to get them under police custody or control,” he told the jury.

As he spoke, Blackwell showed jurors a photo from the scene in which Chauvin has his knee on Floyd’s neck.

“The dangers of the prone position – putting people face down on the ground – have been known about in policing for over 30 years,” Blackwell said.

Blackwell told the jurors that they will learn that Floyd’s body was making involuntary movements while he was being held down by Chauvin, including a seizure and “agonal breathing” from oxygen deprivation.

After Chauvin was told twice that Floyd did not have a pulse, “he does not let up, and he does not get up,” Blackwell said, adding that the officer did not take his knee off from Floyd even as a paramedic sought a pulse.

In his opening statement, Chauvin’s defense attorney, Eric Nelson, told jurors, “The use of force is not attractive, but it is a necessary component of policing.”

Chauvin, he added, “did what he was trained to do.”

Nelson warned the jury that the trial will bring several significant battles over how some facts are interpreted. Chief among them, he said, will be the cause of death.

“The evidence will show that Mr. Floyd died of a cardiac arrhythmia that occurred as a result of hypertension, his coronary disease, the ingestion of methamphetamine and fentanyl, and the adrenaline flowing through his body — all of which acted to further compromise an already compromised heart,” Nelson said.

Nelson also noted that the autopsy performed by Hennepin County Medical Examiner found no evidence that Floyd died of asphyxiation.

Describing Floyd’s actions on the day he died, Nelson said, “The evidence will show that when confronted by police, Mr. Floyd put drugs in his mouth in an effort to conceal them from police.”

When jurors weigh the evidence and the law and “apply reason and common sense,” Nelson said, “there will only be one just verdict, and that is to find Mr. Chauvin not guilty.”

Nelson also claimed that the officers let Floyd die because they were distracted by a chaotic crowd that “diverted their attention” from the man below the weight of their bodies. He suggested that if the bystanders who were pleading with the officers to release Floyd had not been there, they would have acted differently.

The Hennepin County medical examiner ruled last June that Floyd’s death was a homicide, saying his heart and lungs stopped functioning “while being restrained.”

derek chauvin
Derek Chauvin

On Tuesday, March 30, six bystanders testified on the second day of Chauvin’s criminal trial: a 9-year-old girl, three high school students, a mixed martial arts fighter and a Minneapolis firefighter. All arrived at the scene hoping to buy snacks from a corner store or looking to get fresh air—only to witness a man’s last breaths.

“I was sad and kind of mad,” the 9-year-old testified. “Because it felt like he was stopping his breathing, and it was kind of like hurting him.”

The MMA fighter, Donald Wynn Williams II, testified that he was so disturbed by what he saw that he called 911 to report it. “I called the police on the police,” he said. “I believed I witnessed a murder.”

Minneapolis firefighter and certified EMT Genevieve Hansen, who was out for a walk on her day off, testified she wanted to render aid to Floyd and repeatedly asked police to check for a pulse. They refused.

“I tried calm reasoning, I tried to be assertive, I pled and was desperate,” she testified. “I was desperate to give help.”

She, too, called 911 afterward to report what police had done. Her call was the third such report. In addition to Williams, a Minneapolis 911 dispatcher who saw the arrest on a live video feed testified Monday that she alerted a police sergeant.

The bystanders’ harrowing testimonies furthered the prosecution’s opening pitch to jurors, which focused on video of the 9 minutes and 29 seconds that Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck.

“You can believe your eyes that it’s a homicide,” prosecuting attorney Jerry Blackwell said Monday. “You can believe your eyes.”

Nelson, Chauvin’s defense attorney, argued that the case was more complicated than just that video. He said Chauvin was following his police “use of force training” and argued Floyd’s cause of death was a combination of drug use and pre-existing health issues.

He also said that the bystanders morphed into a threatening crowd, which distracted the officers. In contentious cross-examinations Tuesday, March 30, of Williams and Hansen, he tried to get them to admit that they and the crowd were angry.

On Wednesday, the trial went into a 10-minute recess after a heart-wrenching testimony from Charles McMillian, 61, who was one of the first bystanders on the scene as George Floyd was being taken into custody.

On the witness stand, McMillian broke down during his testimony after watching footage of himself watching Floyd plead for his life while he struggled to breathe.

McMillian said he tried to get Floyd to calm down as two officers tried to place him into the back of their squad car.

“I’m watching Mr. Floyd, I’m trying to get him to understand that when you make a mistake, once they get you in handcuffs there’s no such thing as being claustrophobic, you have to go,” he said. “I’ve had interactions with officers myself and I realize once you get in the cuffs, you can’t win.”

Prosecutor Erin Eldridge played officer-worn body camera footage while exterior store surveillance video was also played.

It showed McMillian calmly watching the officers having difficulty getting an increasingly agitated Floyd into their squad car.

Floyd cried, “Momma, Momma, Momma” repeatedly and yelled out that, “I can’t breathe” on the video. Once the video stopped, the global livestream showed McMillian wiping away tears, fighting sobs.

The trial is expected to last three to four weeks.

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