MINNEAPOLIS — Derek Chauvin violated his oath as a police officer when he knelt on George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds and ignored Floyd’s cries for help “until the very life was squeezed out of him,” a prosecutor said Monday as testimony began in the landmark trial set to be a defining moment in the nation’s reckoning over race and policing.
In opening statements, the prosecution and the defense presented vastly different pictures of the May 25 scene that ended with the 46-year-old Black man unresponsive beneath the White police officer’s knee on a South Minneapolis street.
Floyd’s death, captured on video, sparked worldwide protests and weeks of civil unrest in cities across the country. Many will be closely watching to see whether the longs days spent in the streets, in what many called the new civil rights movement, will result in justice not just for Floyd, but for the countless other Black Americans who have been abused and killed by police.
Special prosecutor Jerry Blackwell told the jury that Chauvin “didn’t let up” and “didn’t get up” even after Floyd repeatedly complained of struggling to breathe, cried out for his mother and ultimately went limp.
“Derek Chauvin betrayed his badge when he used excessive and unreasonable force upon the body of Mr. George Floyd when he put his knees 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,” Blackwell said.
He described Floyd as “defenseless” and “completely in control of the police.” He accused Chauvin of keeping his knee at Floyd’s neck for longer than was necessary — a total of nine minutes and 29 seconds.
“When Mr. Floyd was in distress, Mr. Chauvin didn’t help him … (and) he stopped anybody else from being able to help,” Blackwell said, telling the jury that Chauvin was not making “split-second decisions,” but a determined choice to remain atop Floyd as he cried out for help and others sought to intervene. “Mr. Chauvin never moves. The knee remains on his neck, sunglasses remain undisturbed on his head and it just goes on.”
The prosecutor then played for the jury several minutes of the viral bystander video that showed Chauvin and three other police officers holding Floyd down as he begged for his life, a video that several jurors told the court they had never seen beyond 30-second clips on the news.
As the video played on a series of television monitors set up around the socially distanced courtroom, several jurors visibly reacted, including one who drew a sharp breath as Floyd was heard saying, “I can’t breathe.” One put a hand to her temple, while another was seen looking away. One juror — a White woman in her 50s who works as a nurse — gripped the armrests of her chair.
“You can believe your eyes,” Blackwell told the jury during his roughly one-hour opening statement. “It’s a homicide. It’s murder.”
Behind him, Chauvin, 45, sat at the defense table, occasionally looking up at the video and taking meticulous notes on a yellow legal pad. He appeared to be avoiding eye contact with the jury.
Chauvin, a 19-year veteran of the Minneapolis Police Department before he was fired in May, has pleaded not guilty to second- and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in Floyd’s death.
Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, pushed back against the prosecution, urging jurors to consider the “totality of the circumstances” and to put aside public opinion as they begin to consider the case against his client. “There is no political or social cause in this courtroom,” Nelson said, during his roughly 20-minute opening statement. “The evidence is far greater than 9 minutes and 29 seconds.”
Nelson said that Chauvin arrived at the scene at 38th and Chicago to find other officers struggling to place Floyd inside a squad car, and that he was following his training as he and the other officers held the man on the ground. He pointed out that Floyd was several inches taller and outweighed his client. He said the incident occurred in an area known to be hostile to police, shaping his client’s response.
“Derek Chauvin did exactly what he had been trained to do over his 19-year career,” Nelson told the jury. “The use of force is not attractive, but it is a necessary component of policing.”
He disputed the prosecution’s assertion that Chauvin was to blame for Floyd’s death, saying the autopsy presented “no telltale signs” of asphyxiation from the officer’s knee. He said that he will present evidence that Floyd died of a combination of drug intoxication, heart disease and high blood pressure, and that adrenaline rushing through his body from this struggle with police “acted to further compromise an already compromised heart.”
In his autopsy, Hennepin County Medical Examiner Andrew Baker, who is expected to be a key witness in the case, noted the drugs in Floyd’s system, including fentanyl and methamphetamine. But Baker, who ruled Floyd’s death a homicide, listed the cause of death as “cardiopulmonary arrest, complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression.”
Nelson noted Baker’s interviews with prosecutors and the FBI — in which he called attention to the high level of drugs in Floyd’s system. He told the jury prosecutors were “not satisfied with Dr. Baker’s work,” so they have consulted with “numerous physicians to contradict Dr. Baker’s findings.”
Floyd’s cause of death is expected to be a key point of contention during the trial. The other three other officers who were at the scene with Chauvin — J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao — are charged with aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter. Those officers, who were also fired, are scheduled to stand trial in August.
Shortly before proceedings began Monday morning, several members of Floyd’s family joined their attorney Ben Crump and the Rev. Al Sharpton outside the heavily fortified courthouse for a news conference.
At one point, the group knelt in silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds — the initial estimate for how long Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck
“Today starts a landmark trial that will be a referendum on how far America has come in its quest for equality and justice for all,” Crump said. He pushed back on the idea that this is a “hard case.”
“We know that if George Floyd was a White American citizen, and he suffered this painful, tortuous death with a police officer’s knee on his neck, nobody, nobody, would be saying this is a hard case,” Crump said.
Prosecutors opened their case with testimony from three eyewitnesses — including a 911 dispatcher who phoned a Minneapolis police supervisor after she saw Chauvin and the other officers kneeling on Floyd on a police surveillance camera that overlooks 38th and Chicago.
Blackwell previewed dispatcher Jena Scurry as a witness during his opening statements, saying that after watching Floyd’s arrest on a surveillance feed, “she did something that she had never done in her career. She called the police on the police.”
“Something was not right,” Scurry said, testifying that she had a “gut instinct” that she needed to phone a police supervisor to make sure he was aware of the situation.
“It’s a multitude of different things that ran through my brain, but I became concerned that something might be wrong,” Scurry said. She told a police sergeant that officers “sat on this man” and asked whether supervisors were aware of the use of force.
“I can call them regarding calls,” Scurry said about police supervisors. “If something doesn’t look right in a call, if there’s a caution note, if there’s something that they can do beyond the scope of the call, I can call them.”
The prosecution also called 23-year-old Alisha Oyler, who worked at the Speedway gas station across the street from Cup Foods where the incident happened. It introduced seven cellphone video clips of Floyd’s arrest that she had recorded and that had not been made public until now.
Prosecutor Steve Schleicher asked the visibly nervous Oyler why she continued to record the interaction at length.
“It’s always the police — they’re always messing with people. And it’s wrong, and it’s not right,” Oyler said.
Prosecutors ended with testimony from Donald Williams, a bystander with martial arts training who challenged the officers at the scene because he believed Chauvin was using what he described as a “blood choke” that cuts the circulation from a person’s neck and can be dangerous if held for too long. He said he saw the officer shimmying his foot, which he interpreted as increasing pressure on Floyd’s neck.
Williams testified that he yelled at Chauvin, calling out his use of a “blood choke” and causing the officer to look up.
“That was the only time he looked at me, when I said that was a blood choke,” Williams testified. “It’s the only time he looked up. We looked each dead in our eyes. When I said it, he acknowledged it.”
A few seconds later, Williams’ testimony was abruptly interrupted when an internet outage cut the broadcast feed from the courtroom — leading Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill to call an early recess.
“We had a major technical glitch here,” Cahill told the jury, announcing that he would send it home early. “Have a good night, and don’t watch the news.”
Testimony in the Chauvin case is expected to last about four weeks — with the jury expected to begin deliberations in late April or early May.