As of Saturday, April 17, the trial prosecuting Derek Chauvin, a prior member of the Minneapolis Police Department, has been in progress for 3 weeks. After the death of George Floyd in May of 2020–publicized through a widely-circulating video showing Chauvin holding his knee on Floyd’s neck for over 9 minutes as the latter struggled to breathe–protests over racially motivated police brutality shone the spotlight on the Black Lives Matter movement and sparked national outrage. Chauvin is now facing charges of manslaughter, second-degree murder, and third-degree murder in the death of George Floyd.
On March 29, Day 1 of Chauvin’s trial began with the prosecution’s opening statement. “On May 25th of 2020, Mr. Derek Chauvin betrayed his badge when he used excessive and unreasonable force upon the body of Mr. George Floyd,” said prosecuting attorney Jerry W. Blackwell, focusing the jurors’ attention on the famous video of Floyd’s arrest. “You will learn that he was well aware that Mr. Floyd was unarmed, that Mr. Floyd had not threatened anyone, that Mr. Floyd was in handcuffs. He was completely in control of the police; he was defenseless. We are going to ask at the end of this case that you find Mr. Chauvin guilty for his excessive use of force against George Floyd that wasn’t assault that contributed to taking his life and for engaging in eminently dangerous behavior: putting the knee on the neck, the knee on the back for 9 minutes and 29 seconds without regard for Mr. Floyd’s life.”
Eric Nelson, Chauvin’s lawyer, then called the jurors’ attention away from the video, stating that, “There’s more to the scene than just what the officers see in front of them,” and telling them that there are over fifty thousand items in evidence that would prove his point. Nelson also called attention to Floyd’s cause of death, which, according to the New York Times will be one of the most crucial points in the trial.
During the rest of the day and throughout the first week of the trial, hours of emotional testimonies from bystanders that witnessed George Floyd’s arrest and death were presented by the prosecution. These accounts were accompanied by additional video evidence and testimony from law enforcement officials and paramedics who stated that Chauvin’s use of force was excessive and unnecessary. Pointing out the emotional trauma caused by Floyd’s arrest, witness Darnella Frazier stated that she has been haunted by the experience and often lies awake at night, “apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life.” More footage of the arrest was shown in detail, from police body cameras to surveillance video from the nearby Cup Foods store. This footage captured officers checking for a pulse, finding none, and taking no action.
Courteney Ross, George Floyd’s girlfriend at the time of his death, testified on the fourth day of trial. While her testimony demonstrated Floyd’s humanity as a father, partner, and friend, it also revealed Floyd’s drug use. Chauvin’s defense lawyers suggested throughout the trial that Mr. Floyd died of complications associated with a drug overdose or heart attack. Hennepin County examiner Dr. Andrew Baker, who performed the official autopsy of Geroge Floyd, testified at the end of the second week. Baker acknowledged that drug use and a heart condition did contribute to Floyd’s death–the deceased had an enlarged heart for his size which could exacerbate his ability to breathe in high-intensity situations–but cited police restraint as the primary cause. “In my opinion, the law enforcement subdual, restraint, and the neck compression were just more than Mr. Floyd could take by virtue of those heart conditions,” he said.
Both Dr. Martin J. Tobin, a pulmonologist and critical care physician, and Dr. Bill Smock, the surgeon for the Louisville Metropolitan Police Department, testified that there was no evidence that Floyd died because of a drug overdose. Chauvin’s defense cited a toxicology report, which found fentanyl and methamphetamine in Floyd’s system, but Tobin and Smock stated that his behavior did not correspond with that of a person who was overdosing. “That is not a fentanyl overdose,” said Smock, about Floyd being able to speak but dying from a lack of oxygen moments later. “That is somebody begging to breathe.” According to Tobin, Smock, and other medical witnesses, Floyd died from a deprivation of oxygen, not an overdose or heart condition.
The second week was marked by testimonies from testimony from medical and law enforcement experts that addressed Mr. Chauvin’s conduct. “Once Mr. Floyd had stopped resisting, and certainly once he was in distress and trying to verbalize that, that should have stopped,” said Chief Medaria Arradondo of the Minneapolis Police Department, explicitly stating that Chauvin “absolutely” violated the department’s policies during the arrest.
Other officers, however, told Chauvin’s lawyer Eric Nelson that the crowd of vocal bystanders would have made it difficult for the officer to call for medical aid. “If you have a very hostile or volatile crowd… sometimes [the EMT] just getting out of the situation is the best way to diffuse it,” said Officer Nicole Mackenzie, the medical support coordinator for the Minneapolis Police Department.
The third week of the trial began the day after the deadly shooting of Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man killed during a traffic stop, sparking protests less than 10 miles from the courtroom housing the trial of Derek Chauvin. Eric Nelson argued that this shooting would influence the jurors to issue a guilty verdict and requested that they be sequestered and re-interviewed. The judge denied his request.
Philonise Floyd, George Floyd’s brother, gave emotional testimony about growing up with his brother and George’s competitive personality. Philonise began to cry while looking at a photo of a toddler-aged George Floyd and their mother. More witnesses were called that affirmed the preventability of Floyd’s death and criticized the officers’ brute mishandling of the situation.
For the first time in the trial, however, a witness explicitly defended Chauvin’s actions. Barry Brodd, an expert on the use of force, stated that Chauvin did not use excessive force and that his actions were justified. The defense also called Dr. David Fowler, a former chief medical examiner of Maryland, to the stand. Fowler characterized Floyd’s cause of death as “undetermined,” stating that the deceased could have died because of a combination of factors, including heart conditions, drug use, and exposure to vehicle exhaust smoke.
Derek Chauvin invoked his Fifth Amendment right to not testify in his defense. Morries Lester Hall, who was inside a car with Floyd moments before the latter was pulled out of the vehicle and pinned to the ground by police, also invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. “If he puts himself in that car, he exposes himself to possession charges,” said Hall’s lawyer Ms. Cousins said Wednesday since drugs were found in the vehicle.
April 15 marked the last day of testimony for the trial. Both the defense and prosecution will deliver their closing statements to the jury on Monday, April 19, and the jurors will then be sequestered and begin their deliberations for a verdict. The jury is a mix of three Black men, one Black woman, and two women who identified themselves as multiracial. According to CBS News, there are two white men and four white women. The jurors range in age from their 20s to their 60s and come from both urban and suburban areas. There are two alternates, both white women. Because of the high profile nature of the case, the 12 jury members and two alternates must remain anonymous and their faces cannot be shown on camera.
The jurors and alternates were selected from a group of over 300 people, all of whom filled out a 14-page questionnaire about their views on race, criminal justice, protests, policing, and other background questions. Most jurors held complex views, acknowledging that the police and justice systems are biased against Black people but also noting support for the police. Many jurors also noted anxiety approaching this trial, but understood the depth and importance of their responsibility. “Everyone’s lives are changed by this incident and what happened,” said Juror No. 44. “Everyone’s lives. And it’s not easy. For anyone.”
On April 21, the jury delivered a verdict of guilty on all counts. Response to the verdict have been varied with some claiming that this is proof that our criminal justice system works, and others claiming that the trial constitutes accountability but not justice. Many hope that this outcome will be a rallying cry for police reform and abolition across the country. During the trial, 75 people were killed by the police in the United States. This indicates that the trial will not be an isolated incident, and we are likely to see more court cases regarding police brutality in the future.