MINNEAPOLIS – Attorneys began laying out their cases Monday in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is charged in the death of George Floyd last spring – an incident that ignited protests worldwide against police brutality and touched off a racial reckoning in the U.S.
Any question about how and when the graphic bystander video of Floyd’s death would be used in the trial was answered just minutes into Monday’s opening statements. The prosecution played the whole video for the jury – all 9 minutes and 29 seconds of it, complete with audio of Floyd gasping “I can’t breathe” 27 times and witnesses urging Chauvin to get off Floyd’s neck.
Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. If convicted of the most serious charge, he could face 10½ years to 15 years in prison under sentencing guidelines for first-time offenders.
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- Court proceedings moved quickly Monday morning, and the first witness took the stand before lunch. Prosecutors called Jena Lee Scurry, a 911 dispatcher.
- Lead defense attorney Eric Nelson gave a 25-minute opening statement for the defense, arguing the evidence in the case is “far greater than 9 minutes and 29 seconds.”
- Attorney Jerry Blackwell gave an hour-long opening statement for the prosecution. He provided jurors with a visual timeline of what happened throughout the 9 minutes and 29 seconds Chauvin’s knee was on Floyd’s neck and played bystander video of the incident.
- Monday morning before court opened, members of Floyd’s family and lawyers linked arms and knelt down in front of the courthouse in silence.
- On Sunday, hundreds gathered in rallies and vigils to honor Floyd’s life and draw attention to the court proceedings.
Defense says evidence is ‘far greater than 9 minutes and 29 seconds’
Lead defense attorney Eric Nelson gave a 25-minute opening statement for the defense, arguing the evidence in the case is “far greater than 9 minutes and 29 seconds.” He said Floyd died as a result of the drugs in his system and underlying medical conditions.
Nelson said that, in addition to the bystander video shown early Monday, other videos will be watched during the roughly month-long trial that give a broader view of what all took place May 25, 2020, depicting a scene where Floyd was on drugs and resisting arrest.
The arrest, Nelson said, was complicated by the size difference between Chauvin, at 5-foot-9 and about 140 pounds, and Floyd, who stood more than 6 feet tall and weighed more than 220 pounds.
Rather than having his legs on Chauvin’s neck and back – as the prosecution alleges – Chauvin, according to Nelson, had one leg on Floyd’s shoulder blade and another on his arm.
Nelson stated that cause of death would be an enormous factor of the trial, disputing that Floyd died of asphyxia and stating:
“What was Mr. Floyd’s actual cause of death? The evidence will show that Mr. Floyd died of a cardiac arrhythmia that occurred as a result of hypertension, coronary disease, the ingestion of methamphetamine and fentanyl, and the adrenaline flowing through his body – all of which acted to further compromise (analready compromised heart.”
Nelson said “there is no political or social cause in this court.” He said Chauvin “did exactly what he had been trained to do over the course of his 19-year career.”
Prosecution plays bystander video, stresses ‘9 minutes 29 seconds’
Prosecutor Jerry Blackwell gave the opening statement for the prosecution Monday morning, speaking for about an hour. He walked jurors through police procedures and rules that govern the Minneapolis Police Department, where Chauvin worked in his 19-year career. The badge worn by officers, Blackwell said, should be worn with honor as a duty to lead with compassion for, and service to, others.
“You will learn that on May 25 of 2020, Mr. Derek Chauvin betrayed his badge when he used excessive and unreasonable force upon the body of Mr George Floyd,” Blackwell told the jurors. “He put his knees upon his neck and his back, grinding, and crushing him until the very breath … until the very life was squeezed out of him.”
Blackwell told jurors the case “is not about all police” or the difficult, “split-second decisions police must make.” He said Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, contrary to the widely reported estimate of 8 minutes and 46 seconds. “There are 569 seconds, not a split second among them,” Blackwell said.
Blackwell provided jurors with a visual timeline of that period, pointing to when bystanders attempted to intervene and when Floyd spoke his last words. “You will see that he does not let up and he does not get up, even when Mr. Floyd doesn’t have a pulse,” Blackwell said. “You can believe your eyes. It’s homicide. It’s murder.”
As the video played, Chauvin sat in the courtroom, taking notes on a yellow legal pad and occasionally looking up at the screen.
During jury selection, several of the jurors said they’d seen only part of the video. One, a retired woman in her 60s, said she had probably watched it on her own before the court proceedings “for four or five minutes” before turning it off. “It just wasn’t something I needed to see,” she said.
Another, a single mother in her 50s called the video “emotional” and said: “I decided I didn’t want to watch it.” And another, a chemist in his 20s, said he had only seen snippets but “would be willing to be uncomfortable” by seeing the video in its entirety for the sake of the jury process.
Floyd family members take a knee outside courthouse: ‘The whole world is watching’
George Floyd’s cousins, brothers and nephew, along with lawyers representing the family and the Rev. Al Sharpton, gathered in front of the courthouse Monday morning and spoke to the public before taking a knee for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time Chauvin was seen kneeling on Floyd’s neck. Subsequent court documents, however, put the time at more than 9 minutes.
“Today starts a landmark trial that will be a referendum on how far America has come in its quest for equality and justice for all. It will be prima facie evidence,” civil rights attorney Ben Crump said. “The whole world is watching.”
A news helicopter clattered overhead as Crump cited the Declaration of Independence and Floyd’s supporters demanded he receive the same justice as a white person would.
“This murder case is not hard when you watch that torture video fo George Floyd. And we have to call it what it is: it was torture,” Crump said. “We’re not asking for anything extraordinary. We’re asking for equal justice under the law.”
George Floyd’s brother, Rodney, warned Americans watching the trial that attorneys for the defense were expected to cast doubt on Floyd’s character. “Please, don’t be entertained by the lies they’re going to throw out on him. The truth is … he was murdered in the streets,” Rodney Floyd said.
On Sunday, the Rev. Billy G. Russell held an evening vigil at his church with members of Floyd’s family, Sharpton and Crump. When he spoke Sunday, Sharpton pointed out that many cases never resulted in criminal charges against the officers involved, citing past incidents including the beating of Rodney King and the killing of Eric Garner. He said that Monday marks an opportunity for the country to hold police accountable.
“The criminal justice system is on trial,” Sharpton said. “Chauvin is in the courtroom, but America is on trial.”
How to watch opening statements in the Derek Chuavin trial
Visual and audio recordings are not typically allowed in Minnesota courtrooms without authorization from a judge. Cahill upheld his decision to livestream the trial in December because of immense global interest in the case and limited courthouse space.
What’s happened so far in Chauvin’s trial?
The judge and attorneys for the defense and prosecution have selected a jury and decided what evidence the jurors will be allowed to hear.
Jury selection began in early March with an initial pool of more than 300 potential jurors who were asked to fill out a pre-trial, 13-page questionnaire about their prior knowledge of the case, their media exposure and whether they could set aside preexisting opinions to serve as an impartial juror. The judge and attorneys spent 11 days interviewing jurors and ultimately selected 15. Chauvin was in the courtroom each day, taking notes on a legal pad.
The process faced some delays after Minneapolis announced a historic $27 million wrongful death lawsuit with Floyd’s family. The defense tried to delay or move trial, arguing news coverage of the announcement tainted the jury. Hennepin County District Court Judge Peter Cahill denied those motions, but he dismissed two jurors who had been chosen already and excused three prospective jurors when they said they were swayed by the settlement.
The judge also ruled the jurors will be allowed to hear some evidence related to a prior arrest of Floyd. In a May 2019 arrest, police responded to information about illegal narcotics activity and found substantial amounts of drugs on and near Floyd, according to court filings. Cahill said the arrest is “remarkably similar” to the fatal 2020 encounter, and that jurors can hear evidence from the 2019 arrest only related to Floyd’s medical state – not his emotional behavior – since it pertains to the cause of death in the 2020 incident.
Who are the jurors?
The jurors come from a wide array of backgrounds. Some are well-versed in the case; others haven’t followed the months of developments.
The panel includes a chemist, a nurse who has been caring for patients on ventilators, a retiree and a social worker. Seven are in their 20s or 30s, three in their 40s, four in their 50s and one woman is in her 60s.
Given the circumstances of Floyd’s death – a Black man dying under the knee of a white police officer – the racial makeup of the jury is a key concern. Nine of the jurors self-identify as white, two as multiracial and four as Black, according to the court.
What to know about the George Floyd case
On May 25, Chauvin was seen on video kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes as Floyd cried out that he couldn’t breathe. Floyd, who was accused of using a a counterfeit $20 bill, was handcuffed and pinned to the ground by three officers during the arrest. Chauvin continued to press his knee into Floyd’s neck minutes after he became nonresponsive as bystanders repeatedly asked officers to check for a pulse.
Chauvin and three other officers were fired a day after Floyd’s death and were charged the following week. The three other officers involved – Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao – are charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and manslaughter. They are scheduled for trial together in August.
Contributing: Trevor Hughes, Christal Hayes, Clairissa Baker