MINNEAPOLIS – Prosecutors in the Derek Chauvin murder trial will formally rest their case Tuesday after capping two weeks of intense and often excruciating testimony with an appearance Monday from George Floyd’s younger brother, who tearfully recalled their childhood in poverty and his brother’s anguish at their mother’s death.
Philonise Floyd, 39, recounted growing up with George Floyd, whom he described as a father figure in a household where their single mother struggled to make ends meet. George Floyd made ensured that his younger siblings were dressed for school, were out the door on time and had eaten something – even though he “couldn’t cook.”
The Philonise Floyd, called to the stand as a “spark of life” witness to humanize George Floyd before a jury considering whether to punish the police officer charged with murder in his death, burst into tears when prosecutors displayed a photo of George Floyd and their mother.
Philonise Floyd said his brother was a “mama’s boy” and had been devastated by her death. He told the jury that the last time he saw his brother alive was at her funeral in May 2018. Floyd, who had moved to Minnesota in 2017, did not make it back to Texas before her death. In a quiet, shaking voice, Philonise Floyd told the jury about seeing his brother crouched at her casket in grief.
“He just said, ‘Mama, Mama,’ over and over again,” Philonise Floyd recalled, in an echo of his brother’s final words as he was pinned last year on a Minneapolis street, with Chauvin’s knee on his neck. “I didn’t know what to tell him, because I was in pain, too. We all were hurting. And he was just kissing it, just kissing it. He didn’t want to leave the casket.”
Philonise Floyd was one of three dozen people who took the stand over two weeks to deliver testimony against Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who knelt on the Black man’s neck for nearly nine and half minutes on May 25. Chauvin was subsequently fired and charged with murder.
Chauvin will formally begin his defense Tuesday; it could end as early as Thursday, said Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill. He said closing arguments are expected to take place April 19 – earlier than many involved in the case had predicted.
Eric Nelson, Chauvin’s attorney, has not offered the full scope of his planned defense for the former officer, though he told the jury that he plans to bring in medical and use-of-force experts to dispute the prosecution’s arguments that Chauvin’s restraint of Floyd was excessive and a “substantial causal factor” in the man’s death. He has not said whether Chauvin will testify in his own defense.
Observers have questioned whether Nelson can overcome the weeks of emotional testimony – including from witnesses at the scene who told of their fear and trauma from seeing Floyd slowly die under Chauvin’s knee; from a litany of Minneapolis police officers including the chief, who spoke of how Chauvin violated department training and policy; and from medical experts who testified in graphic terms about how Floyd strained his wrists and fingers trying to grab for air.
But Nelson, who has argued that his client was following his training, needs just one juror to agree that there is reasonable doubt that Chauvin’s actions contributed to Floyd’s death.
On Monday, Cahill rejected Nelson’s request to sequester the jury immediately. The request came a day after Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, was shot and killed by police in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center, igniting fresh protests and looting in parts of the city, including areas of South Minneapolis damaged in the unrest after Floyd’s death last May.
Nelson, who previously had asked that the jury be sequestered because of widespread publicity about his client’s case, renewed his request, citing concerns that jurors could be influenced in their deliberations by fears of what might happen in the city as a result of their verdict.
While Nelson acknowledged that the latest police killing had nothing to do with the Chauvin case, he described the cases as emotionally linked and pointed out that one of the seated jurors lives in the city where Wright was killed.
“The problem is that the emotional response that the case creates sets the stage for a jury to say, ‘I’m not going to vote not guilty because I’m concerned about the outcome,’ ” Nelson argued. “This incident last night highlights, and I think brings it to the forefront of the jury’s mind-set, that a verdict in this case is going to have consequences.”
In addition to sequestration, Nelson pressed Cahill to question the jurors on what they had heard about the Wright shooting and whether it would affect their ability to be impartial toward Chauvin – moves that prosecutors vigorously opposed.
“Things continue to happen in the state despite the fact that we’re all here in trial. That’s just what happens. And we can’t have every single world event that might affect somebody’s attitude or emotional state . . . be the grounds to come back” and restart jury selection, prosecutor Steve Schleicher said.
Cahill said he understood the defense’s concerns. “But I think sequestering them would only aggravate that,” he said. The judge, who has ordered jurors to not watch the news, said those who did hear about the latest civil unrest could interpret being sequestered ahead of the verdict to mean there is a “greater threat to our security.”
In addition to Philonise Floyd, prosecutors rounded out their case with two other witnesses: a Chicago cardiologist who testified that neither George Floyd’s heart issues nor drug use contributed to his death, and a former police-officer-turned-law-professor who joined other experts in arguing that Floyd was no longer a threat to officers when he was handcuffed and face down on the ground.
Jonathan Rich, a cardiologist who practices at Chicago’s Northwestern Memorial Hospital, testified that Floyd died of low oxygen levels caused by the way he was restrained by police. He rejected defense theories that Floyd died of existing heart issues or a drug overdose. An autopsy found fentanyl and methamphetamine in Floyd’s system.
Rich, who said he reviewed Floyd’s medical records as well as autopsy results and video from the scene, said he found that Floyd had high blood pressure, suffered from anxiety and struggled with substance abuse. He agreed with other medical experts who said Floyd had partially clogged arteries, but said he had never been diagnosed with heart disease and in fact “had an exceptionally strong heart.”
“Reviewing all of the facts and evidence of the case, I can state with a high degree of medical certainty that George Floyd did not die from a primary cardiac event, and he did not die from a drug overdose,” Rich said, adding that it was “truly the prone restraint and positional restraints” that led to the asphyxiation that caused his death.
Rich testified that Floyd’s death was “absolutely preventable.” He and Seth Stoughton, a former Tallahassee, Fla., police officer who is now an associate professor at the University of South Carolina’s law school, called the jury’s attention to two crucial moments at the scene when Chauvin could have lifted his knees from Floyd’s neck and back but chose not to.
In police body camera footage, which was played for the jury during Stoughton’s testimony, Thomas Lane, the officer who was holding Floyd’s legs, asked Chauvin whether they should roll the unconscious man over – a move that Chauvin resisted. A few minutes later, Alexander Kueng, the officer holding Floyd’s back, told Chauvin that he could not find a pulse. “Huh,” replied Chauvin, who did not remove his knee for several more minutes.
Rich argued that officers should have started lifesaving measures including CPR at that moment and suggested that they could have saved Floyd’s life.
Under defense cross-examination, Nelson tried to shift blame to Floyd. He pressed Rich on whether Floyd would have survived “if he had simply gotten into the back seat of the squad car.”
“Had he not been restrained in the way in which he was, I think he would have survived that day. I think he would have gone home or wherever he was going to go,” Rich said.
“So, in other words, if he had gotten in the squad car, he’d be alive,” Nelson replied.
The prosecution closed its case with testimony from Stoughton, a use-of-force expert who echoed others in the case in saying Chauvin used “deadly force” on Floyd.
Stoughton was called to testify in response to the “objectively reasonable” defense often invoked in police prosecutions. The defense stems from the Supreme Court’s Graham v. Connor decision in 1989, which established that a police officer’s actions must be judged against what another reasonable officer would do when facing the same scene.
Stoughton repeatedly argued that Chauvin had not behaved in a “reasonable” manner – including in the way he restrained Floyd and his decision not to render medical aid when the Black man appeared to be in “medical distress.”
“Somebody who does not have a pulse does not present a threat in any way,” Stoughton said.
Nelson challenged Stoughton’s views, including the professor’s belief that Chauvin and the other officers should have known that the prone position was dangerous.
“He did not present a threat to the officers or their interests. He did not present a threat of escape,” Stoughton said. “Putting him in the prone position, especially on the street side of the car, was unreasonable and excessive and contrary to generally accepted police practices.”
“Reasonable minds can disagree, agreed?” Nelson asked.
“On this particular point?” the professor replied. “No.”
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The Washington Post’s Mark Berman contributed to this report.