Attorneys in the Derek Chauvin murder trial on Monday each made their case before jurors who will decide the fired Minneapolis police officer's fate in the killing of George Floyd 10 months ago.
Prosecutor Jerry Blackwell began shortly before 9:40 a.m. in front of a global livestream audience in downtown Minneapolis in the heavily guarded Hennepin County Government Center and explained how the state will prove that Chauvin killed Floyd and should be convicted of murder and manslaughter.
In his nearly one-hour address to jurors, Blackwell turned to what could be the prosecution's most crucial piece of the evidence -- the viral bystander video of Floyd's arrest -- and showed it in full to the jurors, others in the courtroom and millions watching on the livestream.
"I can't breathe," Floyd said repeatedly, a phrase that quickly became a rallying cry for activists around the world. The cellphone video captured bystanders' increasingly agitated calls for intervention while Chauvin remained with his knee on Floyd's neck.
Nearly an hour later, defense attorney Eric Nelson followed with his opening statement and declared that Chauvin acted precisely as his training taught him.
A crucial witness for the state was Donald Williams II, who saw much of Floyd's time on the pavement and who implored with Chauvin to let the handcuffed Floyd get up. His voice was strongest one among the witnesses heard in the now-famous bystander video of the arrest.
Williams, who is a longtime mixed martial arts fighter, said he was familiar with how Chauvin had Floyd pinned to the pavement in what Williams recognized from his training as a "blood choke." He said it can lead to someone falling unconscious.
Floyd was distressed as he pleaded with Chauvin, " 'My stomach hurts, I can't breathe, my head hurts, I want my mom,' " the 33-year-old Williams testified. "He said he wanted to get in the car, he said he's sorry for what he did."
Williams compared watching Floyd gasp for air to a fish he had caught earlier that day with his son.
"You see Floyd fade away like the fish in the bag," he said. "He vocalized that he can't breathe and 'I'm sorry.' His eyes rolled back in his head."
As Williams watched the viral video shot by a fellow bystander, he told the court that Chauvin was shifting his weight on purpose repeatedly to tighten the hold on Floyd's neck, what the witness called a "shimmy." At one point, he said Floyd was trying to fight "through the torture."
Late in the afternoon, Judge Peter Cahill reminded Williams to keep his testimony to what he witnessed and how his martial arts experience makes him better understand the circumstances. He was told to cease offering conclusions or express opinions while testifying.
Moments later, Cahill recessed for the day because the video feed being viewed by Floyd family members outside the courtroom failed. The day wrapped up close to the time it would have anyway.
The state's first witness was the 911 dispatcher who handled the call that resulted in Chauvin and the other officers responding to the intersection where Floyd was detained.
Jena Scurry detailed under questioning by prosecutor Matthew Frank how she was troubled by seeing on wall-mounted dispatch screens how Floyd's arrest played out on city surveillance cameras.
The seven-year dispatch veteran said she glanced up at the screens between taking other calls and saw a police squad moving "back and forth" as officers dealt with Floyd, then moments later take him to the pavement.
Multiple times she looked away and then back to see the same image of the officers keeping Floyd on the pavement. "I first asked if the screens were frozen," Scurry testified. "I was told that it was not frozen."
It was then that "something was not right. It was an extended period of time. ... It was a gut instinct, now we can be concerned."
Scurry said she called a supervisory sergeant and reported what she saw. The audio of that call was played in court:
"I don't know, you can call me a snitch if you want to but we have the cameras up for [squad] 320's call, and … I don't know if they had to use force or not, but they got something out of the back of the squad, and all of them sat on this man, so I don't know if they needed you or not, but they haven't said anything to me yet," the dispatcher is heard saying, using the call sign of the police squad being driven by Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng.
The sergeant responds: "Yeah, they haven't said anything yet ... just a takedown, which doesn't count, but I'll find out."
"No problem, we don't get to ever see it so when we see it we're just like, well, that looks a little different, but …," Scurry said, her voice trailing off.
Under questioning by Nelson, Scurry acknowledged that she could not hear what was happening at the intersection and does not have the same training as a police officer. She also agreed with the defense attorney that she was unsure at the time that she was viewing a use of force incident.
A woman who worked at the Speedway station at the intersection testified that she recorded several brief video clips of Floyd's arrest and turned them over soon after to police.
Alisha Oyler, 23, said under prosecution questioning that she made the videos because "police is always messing with people ... and it's not right."
Blackwell began his opening statement by explaining how Minneapolis officers take an oath to respect the sanctity of life, to not use excessive force and to accept the public trust that comes with the badge they wear.
"You will learn that on May 25, 2020, Mr. Derek Chauvin betrayed this badge when he used excessive and unreasonable force upon the body of Mr. George Floyd. That he put his knee upon his neck and his back, grinding and crushing him until the very breath, no ladies and gentlemen, until the very life was squeezed out of him."
Floyd was unarmed and not threatening anyone, Blackwell said. He was handcuffed and "completely in the control of the police," he said.
With photos from the bystander video, Blackwell walked through the minutes that Floyd was pinned under Chauvin's knee at E. 38th Street and S. Chicago Avenue.
Ultimately, Blackwell said, the state will prove that Chauvin's conduct was a "substantial cause" of Floyd's death and inflicted "without regard for Mr. Floyd's life."
Blackwell soon turned to the prosecution's medical evidence. He said Floyd did not die from a heart attack or an opioid overdose. He said that Dr. Andrew Baker, the county's medical examiner, saw no evidence of heart injury, and it was "so unremarkable he didn't even photograph the heart."
He said Floyd didn't die instantly, like one does of cardiac arrest, or nod off, such as in the instance of an opioid overdose.
Opioid overdose victims, he said, are "not screaming for their lives, they're not calling for their mothers, they're not saying 'Please, please, I can't breathe.' That's not what [an] opioid overdose looks like."
He said that Floyd's cause of death — cardiopulmonary arrest — is the direct result of being restrained.
Rather, Blackwell said, Floyd "died one breath at a time over an extended period of time" and that the cause of death — cardiopulmonary arrest — is the direct result of being restrained.
Nelson rose for his opening statement, which lasted about 20 minutes, and emphasized the importance of reasonable doubt. He told the jurors, "There are always two sides to a story."
The defense attorney pointed out that "the evidence is far greater than 9 minutes and 29 seconds, you will learn in this courtroom that evidence has been gathered clearly and extensively."
He then referred to Floyd using counterfeit money to buy cigarettes in a store, resisting arrest and ingesting drugs to conceal them from police. He noted the difference in size between Floyd and Chauvin, saying Floyd was taller and heavier than Chauvin.
In that totality of the circumstances, Nelson said, Chauvin "did exactly what he was trained to do over the course of his 19-year career. ... The use of force is not attractive but is necessary."
He noted the volatility of the situation in a high-crime area, and the increasingly agitated bystanders creating "a threat that was growing in front of them."
Nelson said that there were no signs that Floyd was asphyxiated or that his airflow was restricted in any way. Tests revealed fentanyl and methamphetamine in his system. The autopsy by Baker also revealed "many other issues," he said, including coronary disease, an enlarged heart and swelling of the lungs.
"The state was not satisfied with Dr. Baker's work, and so they have contracted with numerous physicians to contradict Dr. Baker's findings," Nelson said. "This will ultimately be another significant battle in this trial: What was Mr. Floyd's actual cause of death? The evidence will show that Mr. Floyd died of 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 an already compromised heart."
Fifteen jurors were chosen over 11 days earlier in the month, a process refereed by Judge Cahill that proved challenging in the midst of outside publicity such as a bystander's video of Floyd's arrest that was watched at least in part many millions of times on social media and in news reports.
Then came the announcement by city leaders during jury selection that they had agreed to settle a lawsuit with the Floyd family for $27 million. Several jury candidates said the payout made it difficult for them to grant Chauvin his constitutional right to be presumed innocent.
The final juror chosen was dismissed before Monday's proceedings began, leaving 14 to be sworn in about 9:25 a.m. The COVID-19 pandemic's need for physical spacing in the courtroom didn't allow for additional alternates.
Opening statements, as defined by state court rules, are just that: statements that "only state the facts proposed to be proven."
After up to four weeks of evidence and closing arguments — when attorneys can use their best persuasive skills based solely on what was presented at trial — two more jurors will be excused and the remaining 12 will go into sequestration until reaching unanimous verdicts on each count.
The 45-year-old Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter in connection with Floyd's death, which not only ignited sometimes violent protests and rioting in Minneapolis, St. Paul and elsewhere, but reignited the nation's debate over policing and race relations.
The 14 remaining jurors are diverse beyond the population they were chosen from and cover many decades in age.
Six of the jurors are people of color and eight are white. Nine are women, and five are men. Chauvin is white. Floyd, 46, was Black.
The jurors are: a multirace woman in her 20s, a multirace woman in her 40s, two Black men in their 30s, a Black man in his 40s, a Black woman in her 60s, four white women in their 50s, a white woman in her 40s, a white man in his 30s, one white man in his 20s, and a white woman in her 20s.
Three other fired Minneapolis police officers, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao, are expected to stand trial together in August on charges of aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482