Prosecutors in the upcoming murder trial of Derek Chauvin want to show jurors video of a 2017 arrest in which they say the former Minneapolis police officer jammed his knee into the back of a 14-year-old boy for several minutes while ignoring his pleas that he couldn’t breathe.
In a memorandum filed late Monday in Hennepin County District court, assistant state Attorney General Matthew Frank said the body camera footage showed that “when faced with a suspect who does not immediately comply with his demands, Chauvin intentionally uses a level of unreasonable force to accomplish subdual and restraint,” countering a defense claim that Chauvin used reasonable force on George Floyd three years later.
In his response, Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, argued that the force used in incidents cited was in keeping with department’s then-policy on dealing with uncooperative suspects.
“The similarities between the State’s proffered acts, which were noncriminal incidents of Mr. Chauvin acting in his duties as a Minneapolis Police officer, and the charged offenses are merely: They involved Mr. Chauvin effecting, or assisting in, the arrest of a suspect; all involved resistance from or a struggle with a suspect; some involved Mr. Chauvin using his body weight to control an arrestee; some involved a neck restraint,” Nelson wrote. “This is simply insufficient to show a marked similarity between the proffered incidents and the charged offenses.”
Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill has yet to rule on Monday’s memorandum or other motions citing other alleged bad acts, known as Spreigl evidence, against Chauvin and his three co-defendants: Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng.
The trial is set to start on March 8.
The latest prosecution memorandum is a follow-up to an earlier filing that mentions the incident with the boy, which was based on written reports filed by Chauvin and other officers at the scene. But, Frank argues, body camera video of the encounter tells a different story.
In their earlier filings, prosecutors sought to introduce evidence from seven prior incidents involving Chauvin to show a pattern of excessive force to restrain suspects long before he encountered Floyd. They also cited one prior episode involving Kueng — a rookie at the time of Floyd’s death — and nine involving Thao.
In June, the department banned the use of chokeholds and neck restraints, acting at the behest of state authorities.
Chauvin, a 19-year department veteran, and his co-defendants were all fired the day after Floyd’s death in May. Chauvin is facing second-degree unintentional murder and manslaughter charges, while the other three former officers stand charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and manslaughter.
Footage from the incident in question shows Chauvin and another officer responding to a domestic assault Sept. 4, 2017, in which a mother said she was assaulted by her son and daughter, who were both minors.
Shortly after arriving, the officers found the son lying on the floor in the back of the house, on his phone, and ordered him to get up because he was under arrest.
When he refused, Chauvin grabbed him and, without saying anything, struck the teen in the head with his flashlight and then grabbed him by the throat, before hitting him again with the flashlight — all of which occurred less than a minute after the officers first encountered the boy, prosecutors said.
According to prosecutors, the video then showed Chauvin applying a neck restraint to the boy, who briefly went unconscious, and then placing him in a prone position with a knee in his back for about 17 minutes until paramedics arrived.
Chauvin held the position even after the child told him that he was in pain and couldn’t breathe, and after the mother tried to intervene, prosecutors said.
At one point, the boy started bleeding from his ear — from getting hit with the flashlight, he later told paramedics — and the boy asked to be put on his back, because his neck really hurt.
He then began crying and again asked to be flipped over, prompting Chauvin to ask if the boy would be “flopping around at all.”
“No,” the boy responded.
“Better not,” Chauvin said, keeping his knee on the child’s back.
According to prosecutors, Chauvin’s report from the incident suggested that the boy “then displayed active resistance to efforts to take him into custody” by “flailing his arms around.” He went on to write that the boy, whom he described as “approximately 6’2” and at least 240 pounds,” would “escalate his efforts to not be arrested,” and because of the boy’s large size, Chauvin “deliver[ed] a few strikes to [the juvenile male] to impact his shoulders and hopefully allow control to be obtained.”
But prosecutors say this account is contradicted by the body camera video.
“As was true with the conduct with George Floyd, Chauvin rapidly escalated his use of force for a relatively minor offense. Just like with Floyd, Chauvin used an unreasonable amount of force without regard for the need for that level of force or the victim’s well-being,” Frank wrote in the filing. “Just like with Floyd, when the child was slow to comply with Chauvin and Walls’ instructions, Chauvin grabbed the child by the throat, forced him to the ground in the prone position, and placed his knee on the child’s neck with so much force that the child began to cry out in pain and tell Chauvin he could not breathe. And just like with Floyd, Chauvin ignored those pleas and refused to provide medical assistance.”
It’s unclear whether a complaint was filed or an Internal Affairs investigation was launched stemming from the incident, but Chauvin’s personnel file shows no discipline during that time frame.
Earlier this month, Cahill ruled that the four former officers would be tried together in Hennepin County, rejecting a defense change of venue motion arguing that the officers couldn’t receive a fair trial in the county.
Attorneys for the defendants had argued for individual trials, but Cahill wrote in his ruling that conducting four separate monthslong trials “is likely to compound and prolong the trauma to the community and the State.”
Defense attorneys had argued that the vast amount of media coverage Floyd’s killing has attracted has tainted the local jury pool.
They also asserted that Hennepin County is unsafe after protesters allegedly assaulted a lawyer and defendant following a downtown court hearing in September, and after a protester was allegedly found with a gun and knives in the Hennepin County courthouse following an October hearing.
Cahill wrote that smaller courthouses would not improve safety, and that “no corner of the state of Minnesota has been shielded” from coverage of Floyd’s death.
Amid a flurry of motions filed this week, prosecutors also asked Cahill to reconsider his order allowing the upcoming trial to be recorded and streamed.
The prosecution also argued against the introduction of evidence from a May 6, 2019, arrest during which Floyd was said to have swallowed some drugs in his possession.
Staff writer Chao Xiong contributed to this report.