The first week of the murder trial of Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis was marked by emotional accounts from bystanders who watched Chauvin pin George Floyd to the ground for more than nine minutes in May.
The prosecution presented testimony, often accompanied by tears and shaking voices, from people who were there during the fatal arrest of Floyd, along with hours of video evidence and additional testimony from paramedics and law enforcement officials who said that Chauvin’s use of force was unnecessary.
Prosecutors also introduced the issue of Floyd’s drug use, which is expected to be a crucial part of Chauvin’s defense; Chauvin’s lawyers are expected to argue that Floyd’s death was a result of his drug use. The trial, one of the most viewed in decades, comes with the memory of last summer’s protests for racial justice fresh in people’s minds.
Here are six key points from the first week of the trial.
Lawyers outlined their opposing strategies.
On Monday, each side laid out its strategy in opening statements.
Eric Nelson, the lawyer for Chauvin, made clear on Monday that he would attempt to convince jurors that the videos of Floyd’s death did not tell the full story. The case “is clearly more than about 9 minutes and 29 seconds,” Nelson said, referring to the time that Chauvin knelt on Floyd. He signaled that he planned to argue that Chauvin had been following his training, that his knee was not necessarily on Floyd’s neck and that Floyd’s death may have been caused by drugs.
One of the prosecutors, Jerry Blackwell, urged jurors to “believe your eyes, that it’s homicide — it’s murder.” Prosecutors call all of their witnesses before the defense begins to lay out its case, so the week was heavily weighted toward the prosecution’s arguments, but the strategies of both sides began to come into view.
Witnesses revealed a sense of shared trauma.
The trial began with powerful testimony from a series of witnesses to the arrest, many of whom broke down in tears while recounting what they saw. They included several women who were younger than 18 at the time of the arrest as well as a 61-year-old man who spoke with Floyd while he was pinned to the ground. From the convenience store clerk at the Cup Foods where Floyd bought cigarettes to an off-duty firefighter who yelled at the officers as Floyd became unresponsive, they conveyed a shared sense of trauma from what they saw that day.
By highlighting the emotional trauma Floyd’s arrest caused witnesses, prosecutors seemingly hoped to convince jurors that Chauvin’s actions had been clearly excessive to people who saw them in real time. One witness, Darnella Frazier, now 18, testified that she has been haunted by what she saw, sometimes lying awake at night “apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life.”
The fateful arrest was replayed from every angle.
For the first time, the final moments before Floyd’s arrest were shown in detail. Surveillance video from Cup Foods, along with testimony from the store clerk, showed Floyd walking around the store, chatting and laughing with customers and eventually buying a pack of cigarettes with a $20 bill that the clerk suspected was fake.
Footage from police body cameras then replayed the arrest from beginning to end. It showed an officer approach Floyd with his pistol drawn and captured audio of Floyd’s fearful reaction: “Please, don’t shoot me,” he said. Floyd appeared terrified, first of the pistol, then of being held in a police car. As Chauvin pinned him to the ground, the footage captured the moments when the officers checked for a pulse and found none but took no action.
The pivotal issue of drug use was directly addressed.
On Thursday, jurors heard from Courteney Ross, Floyd’s girlfriend at the time of his death. Through stories of their first kiss, their dates and his hobbies, prosecutors used Ross’ testimony to show Floyd’s humanity as a father, partner and friend.
Ross’ testimony also brought one of the most important aspects of the trial to the forefront: Floyd’s drug use. The role that drugs did or did not play in Floyd’s death is expected to be a crucial element of Chauvin’s defense, and prosecutors called Ross to the stand to get in front of the claims of Chauvin’s lawyer.
Ross said that she and Floyd had first been prescribed painkillers to ease chronic pain but that when the prescriptions ran out, they continued to buy the pills from others. They had begun a battle for sobriety, sometimes avoiding the drugs before they relapsed again. In the weeks before Floyd’s death, Ross said, she suspected that he had begun using again.
Prosecutors sought to show that Floyd had built up a high tolerance of the drugs, making it less likely that he died of an overdose; Floyd had methamphetamine and fentanyl in his system at the time of his death, according to a toxicology report.
At the scene, there were no signs of life.
Two paramedics who responded to the scene both testified that they saw no signs of life from Floyd upon their arrival. One of them, Derek Smith, felt Floyd’s neck while police officers were still on top of him and said he found no pulse. Smith’s attempts to revive him, including the use of a defibrillator and a machine that provides chest compressions, did nothing to improve Floyd’s condition. Although the paramedics did not address what exactly killed Floyd, their testimony seemed to support prosecutors’ claim that Chauvin’s actions resulted in his death.
A tactic was called ‘deadly force.’
On Friday, Lt. Richard Zimmerman, the longest-serving officer in the Minneapolis Police Department, offered scathing condemnation of Chauvin’s use of force. He said Chauvin violated police policy and called his actions “totally unnecessary.” Putting a knee on someone’s neck while they are handcuffed in a prone position, he said, qualifies as “deadly force.”
“If your knee is on a person’s neck, that can kill them,” Zimmerman said, adding that people who are handcuffed generally pose little threat to officers. Zimmerman’s testimony, bolstered by his more than 35 years on the force, could be a major setback for a crucial aspect of Chauvin’s defense: that his actions were not only legal but also within the bounds of his training.