“A reasonable doubt is a doubt that is based upon reason and common sense,” said defense lawyer Derek Nelson. “I want to talk about reason and common sense and how that applies to the evidence that you’re about to see during the course of this trial. Reason is an idea that wholly permeates our law, our legal system, and it forms the foundation.”
“What would a reasonable police officer do? What is a reasonable use of force?” he asked. “What is a reasonable doubt?” He added: “Common sense tells you that there are always two sides to a story.”
The defense cited over 50 interviews with the Minneapolis Police Department, including officers who responded to the incident. Nearly 200 civilian interviews were included.
Cup Foods is where Floyd and a friend entered on May 25, 2020, around 7:00 pm. The defense asserted that the store manager interacted with him and concluded that Floyd was under the influence. He further claimed that Floyd used a counterfeit bill to purchase cigarettes. That the manager went outside to the car and asked Floyd to purchase the cigarettes, but that Floyd and his friend refused.
NOTE: It was at this point in the proceedings that my television froze and my wifi failed. I have been unable to reproduce the entire opening statement of the defense, so I will provide summaries as quotes and transcripts become available.
UPDATE (March 26, 2021): The defense team appears to be blaming drug use and undiagnosed heart ailments as culprits for Floyd’s death. Attorney Eric Nelson said as much yesterday, adding that the crowd that gathered around the scene somehow served as a “threat”. Nelson alleged that Officer Chauvin was “distracted” by the crowd of onlookers who were urging him to get off Floyd’s neck and stop suffocating him.
Today, a witness testified that she, too, tried to intervene. Genevieve Hanson, an off-duty firefighter, testified that she would’ve taken a number of steps to render aid to Floyd. “I would’ve opened his airway to check for any obstructions, and I would’ve checked for a pulse,” she said. “And when I didn’t find a pulse — if that was the case — I would’ve started compressions.”
She would’ve done chest compressions, she said, in order to get his pulse back. “It’s what I would’ve done for anybody,” she said.
“And were you able to do that — any of those steps?” the prosecutor asked.
“Why weren’t you able to do any of that?”
“Because the officers didn’t let me into the scene,” she answered. “I also offered, in my memory, I offered to kind of walk them through it and told them, “If he doesn’t have a pulse, you need to start compressions,” and that wasn’t done either.”
“When you couldn’t do that, how did that make you feel?” the attorney asked.
“Totally distressed,” Hanson answered, as she fought back tears. She would not be the only emotional witness at this trial.
UPDATE (March 31, 2021): Today, Charles McMillian, one of the first bystanders on the scene as George Floyd was taken into custody in May 2020, broke down on the stand during his testimony after watching graphic footage of Floyd’s arrest.
The video showed officers trying to get Floyd into a squad car, then struggling with the police. Floyd can be heard in the footage saying he’s “claustrophobic” and struggling to breathe, according to CNN. Before the struggle began, McMillian was on the sidewalk telling Floyd to comply with the police, saying “you can’t win.”
McMillian, 61, broke down after watching video of Floyd calling out for his mother after repeatedly saying, “I can’t breathe.” McMillian burst into tears, reaching for the box of tissues and grabbing four. He took off his glasses and wiped his eyes, sobbing.
Asked to explain what he was feeling, McMillian responded with anguish. “I couldn’t help but feel helpless,” he said. “I don’t have a mama either, but I understand him.” He paused. “My mama died June 25,” he wept.
He became so emotional that the judge called for a 10-minute break. “Nearly every witness so far has cried at some point during their testimony,” wrote New York Times reporter Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs. “The trauma of having seen the arrest of George Floyd in person is clearly painful to them.”
In fact, the same effect is occurring among the jury. One juror interrupted the proceedings an hour into Wednesday’s session, motioning to the judge that she felt ill. The judge paused the trial, citing the woman’s “stress-related reaction.” The 50-year-old woman told the judge that she was feeling shaky, but better, and that she had been having trouble sleeping.
On April 2, jurors heard testimony that was, by any measure, incredibly damning. Lt. Richard Zimmerman, the longest-serving officer on the Minneapolis police force, testified that the use of force in Floyd’s death was not necessary.
Minnesota Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank asked Zimmerman, “Have you ever, in all the years that you’ve been working for the Minneapolis Police department, been trained to kneel on the neck of someone who is handcuffed behind their back, in a prone position?”
“No, I haven’t,” Zimmerman answered.
“Is that — if that were done, would that be considered force?”
“What level of force might that be?”
“That would be the top tier, the deadly force.”
“Because of the fact that if your knee is on a person’s neck, that can kill him.”
Frank asked: “If you, as an officer, according to your training, handcuff somebody behind their back, what’s your responsibility with regard to that person from that moment on?”
“That person is yours. He’s your responsibility. His safety is your responsibility. His well-being is your responsibility,” Zimmerman said. “Once a person is cuffed, the threat level goes down all the way. They’re cuffed. How can they really hurt you?” He acknowledged that a cuffed person could still be combative, but added, “Well, you could have somebody try to kick at you or something, but you can move out of the way. That person is handcuffed. The threat level is just not there.”
Later, Frank asked, “Based on your review of the body work cameras of the incident, directing your attention to that moment where Mr. Floyd is placed on the ground, what is your view of that use of force?”
“Totally unnecessary,” Zimmerrman replied.
That conclusion was shared by Minneapolis Police Chief Medaya Arrandondo, the city’s first Black chief. Arrandondo testified April 5 and said that “to continue that level of force to a person ‘proned out’, handcuffed behind their back, is in no way, shape or form anything that is by policy. It’s not part of our training, and it’s certainly not part of our ethics or our values.”
UPDATE (April 8, 2021): Today, a medical expert delivered a compelling verdict on George Floyd’s cause of death. Dr. Martin J. Tobin, a pulmonologist and critical care physician from the Chicago area, was the first witness prosecutors called to the stand on Thursday.
When prosecutors asked if he had formed a medical opinion on what had caused George Floyd’s death, Dr. Tobin said, “Mr. Floyd died from a low level of oxygen, and this caused damage to his brain that we see, and it also caused a P.E.A. arrhythmia because his heart stopped,” referring to pulseless electrical activity, or cardiac arrest.
What caused the low level of oxygen? “Shallow breathing,” Dr. Tobin said. That was caused by the fact that Mr. Floyd was prone on the ground and had Chauvin’s knee on his neck and back, Tobin added. “He’s jammed down against the street, and so the street is playing a major role in preventing him from expanding his chest,” Dr. Tobin stated. He bolstered his argument by showing images of the arrest, where Floyd is shown digging his fingers and knuckles into the ground and a nearby tire:
“To most people, this doesn’t look terribly significant. But to a physiologist this is extraordinarily significant because this tells you that he has used up his resources and he is now literally trying to breathe with his fingers and knuckles,” Dr. Tobin said. “So he’s using his fingers and his knuckles against the street to try to crank up the right side of his chest. This is his only way to try to and get air into the right lung.” He later said that Floyd’s breathing was so reduced it was as if “a surgeon had gone in and removed the lung.”
Dr. Tobin strongly contradicted the defense’s argument that fentanyl played a role in Floyd’s death. He asserted that “if fentanyl is having an effect, and it’s depressing the respiratory centers that control breathing, that’s going to result in a decrease of the respiratory rate. And it’s shown that with fentanyl, you have a 40% decrease in the respiratory rate. So with fentanyl, his breathing [rate] should be right down at about 10. Instead of that, it’s right in the middle or normal, around 22.”
UPDATE (April 13, 2021): The prosecution has rested its case. The defense is presenting its arguments now, calling witness Barry Brodd to the stand. Brodd testified that he believes “Derek Chauvin’s actions were justified, was acting with objective reasonableness.” Asked whether he thought the act was excessive force, Brodd said no. Significantly, Minnesota reporter KaMaria B. points out that Brodd is a paid witness.
UPDATE (April 15, 2021): The defense has rested its case.
UPDATE (April 19, 2021): Right now, the prosecution is presenting closing arguments in the trial. The prosecutor has outlined the charges of second-degree murder, which under Minnesota law “causes the death of a human being, without intent to effect the death of while committing or attempting to commit a felony offense other than criminal sexual conduct in the first or second degree with force or violence or a drive-by shooting”; OR
“causes the death of a human being without intent to effect the death of any person, while intentionally inflicting or attempting to inflict bodily harm upon the victim while intentionally inflicting or attempting to inflict bodily harm upon the victim”. The prosecuting attorney Steven Schleicher emphasized that even if there were other factors (i.e. heart disease, drug use) they did not absolve Chauvin of responsibility for Floyd’s death.
For third-degree murder, the prosecution would need to prove that “the defendant acted with a mental state consisting of reckless disregard for human life — a conscious indifference to the loss of life that the eminently dangerous act could cause.” The prosecutor demonstrated Chauvin’s “conscious indifference” by showing video of Floyd saying he couldn’t breathe — that his stomach, his neck, his everything hurt — and Chauvin replying that “it takes a whole lot of oxygen to complain about it.”
Also revealed was how Chauvin ignored a request from his own officer to turn Floyd on his side. Chauvin displayed “conscious indifference” to Floyd as he “leisurely” picked rocks out of a tire and commented on the smell of Floyd’s feet, even as Floyd’s voice became weaker, Schleicher said.
Did the defendant ever listen? Ever consider medical attention?” Schleicher asked.
For second-degree manslaughter, the definition includes culpable negligence or bodily injury that creates a high probability of death that causes serious permanent disfigurement or causes deformation or loss of function of an organ.
“This wasn’t policing. This was murder,” Schleicher said. “The defendant is guilty of all three counts. All of it. And there is no excuse.”
After a 20-minute break, the defense presented closing arguments. Attorney Eric Nelson stated, “A criminal case is kind of like baking chocolate chip cookies. You have to have all the necessary ingredients.” If any element needed is missing, he argued, the recipe could not be fulfilled. “It’s a simple kind of analogy. But the criminal law works the same way.”
Nelson issued a lengthy treatise on the nature of what a “reasonable officer” would do. “No crime is committed if a police officer’s actions are justified by the use of reasonable force in the line of duty in effecting a lawful arrest or preventing an escape from custody.”
A reasonable police officer wants to keep his fellow officers, civilians and the person being arrested safe, Nelson said. A reasonable police officer also thinks about resources, like where the closest hospital is, or what the response time for EMS would be. Nelson stated that the direct knowledge that a police officer would have when use of force occurs is: dispatch information, direct observations of the scene and whether the subject was under the influence of a controlled substance.
Nelson further asserted that “it is not uncommon for suspects to feign, or pretend to have, a medical emergency in order to avoid being arrested. Unfortunately, that is the reality.” Nelson used this to defend Chauvin’s indifferent response to Floyd saying he couldn’t breathe. When Chauvin told Floyd “it takes a lot of oxygen to talk,” the officer was acting on the knowledge he had at the time, Nelson argued. The defense played clips of Floyd being removed from the police car; video footage shows Chauvin with his arm around Floyd’s neck while inside the vehicle.
After 10 and a half hours of deliberations, the jury reached a verdict on April 20, 2021.
On June 25, 2021 — 13 months to the day after Floyd’s death — it was sentencing day. Floyd’s daughter Gianna and brothers Terrence and Philonise delivered victim impact statements beforehand. Gianna, 7, spoke via video about missing her father and her memories of him. Philonise Floyd noted that Gianna’s father won’t be there to walk her down the aisle, to be at her prom, Sweet 16 or high school graduation. He wept as he described having nightmares induced by repeatedly viewing the video of George Floyd pleading for his life. Both he and his brother asked for the maximum sentence.
Terrence Floyd reminded the court that officers too often face minor penalties for violence against Black people. “We don’t want to see no more smacks on the wrist,” he declared. His community and culture have been through that already, he stated in court today. “If the roles were reversed, there wouldn’t be no case,” he said. “We’d be under the jail.”
Prosecuting attorney Matthew Frank said, “This case wasn’t about all police officers; it wasn’t about policing. This case was about Derek Chauvin disregarding all that training he received and assaulting Mr. Floyd until he suffocated to death,” he said. He told the judge that the defense’s argument for probation is “so outside the realm of possibility. This is murder.”
The defense also spoke. Chauvin’s mother Carolyn Pawlenty spoke for the first time on his behalf, asserting that her son is a “quiet, thoughtful, honorable and selfless man”. She was disturbed by reports that painted her son as racist or uncaring, she said. “The proudest moment of my life was when I gave birth to you,” she told her son. She did not mention George Floyd or his family by name.
But defense attorney Derek Nelson did acknowledge the family’s pain in his opening statement. He noted the national and global impact of the case, lamenting that public opinion may be dissatisfied regardless of the sentence. Nelson said of Floyd: “He is loved by his family members; he is loved by his friends, and his life is justifiably mourned by those whose lives he impacted.” Nelson added: “I know that this has been an incredibly difficult case for the Floyd family to endure.”
Derek Chauvin also spoke. “I’m not able to give a full, formal statement at this time,” said Chauvin, citing external information. But he added: “I want to give my condolences to the Floyd family.” After a 15-minute recess, Judge Peter Cahill delivered the verdict: Derek Chauvin was sentenced to 270 months in prison. (That’s 22 1/2 years.)
“You are prohibited from posessing firearms, ammunition, or explosives for the remainder of your life,” the judge said. “Register as a predatory offender, as required by law.”