MINNEAPOLIS – For nearly a year, the country’s understanding of George Floyd’s death has come primarily from a gruesome video of a white Minneapolis policeman kneeling on Mr. Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes. It has become, for many, a painful encapsulation of racism in the police.
But as the murder trial of officer Derek Chauvin opened on Monday, his lawyer tried to convince jurors that there was more to Mr. Floyd’s death than the stark video.
The case concerned Mr. Floyd’s drug use, attorney Eric J. Nelson argued. It was about Mr Floyd’s size, his resistance from the police and his weakened heart, the lawyer said. It was an increasingly agitated crowd that gathered at an intersection in southern Minneapolis, which he said took Mr. Chauvin’s attention away from Mr. Floyd, who was black. . This, Mr. Nelson claimed, was in part an overdose and not a police murder.
Prosecutors, however, said the case was exactly what it appeared to be – and exactly what the video, with its graphic and indelible moments, revealed.
“You can believe your eyes, that this is homicide,” Jerry W. Blackwell, one of the prosecutors, told jurors in an opening statement. “It’s murder.
The confrontational approaches came on the first day of trial in a murder that stunned the nation and sparked months of protests against racism and police abuse around the world. Mr Floyd’s death on May 25 also sparked unrest that has engulfed much of Minneapolis, and some residents fear such scenes could reoccur, depending on when this trial ends.
Prosecutors began their case by playing the much-watched spectator video for jurors, but the defense team urged them to look beyond other issues, adopting a tactic that has been used in previous cases police investigation involving overwhelming video evidence.
It was used in the case of Rodney King, who was beaten by Los Angeles cops in 1991, and in the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald by a Chicago cop in 2014, with mixed results. The officers in Mr King’s case, who were seen on video kicking and beating him with batons, were acquitted of state charges but sentenced on federal civil rights charges. Jason Van Dyke, an officer whose shooting of Mr. McDonald was captured on dashcam video, has been convicted of second degree murder, the most serious charge Mr. Chauvin now faces.
“Derek Chauvin did exactly what he was trained to do in his 19-year career,” Nelson told jurors during an opening statement behind a plastic barrier, erected to prevent the spread of the disease. Covid-19. “The use of force is unattractive, but it is a necessary component of policing.”
The prosecution said it would present loads of evidence that Mr. Chauvin violated the widely accepted policy, training and practice.
Video is perhaps the most explosive evidence from the trial, but medical evidence – and the particular scientific reasons for Mr Floyd’s death – also seems likely to play a central role, lawyers suggested Monday.
An autopsy report, released shortly after Mr. Floyd’s death, classified the death as a homicide and concluded that the cause was “cardiopulmonary arrest complicating subdual law enforcement, restraint and neck compression ”- essentially, that Mr. Floyd’s heart had stopped because his body was starved of oxygen from obstructed blood flow, and Mr. Chauvin’s physical restraint was a major factor. This autopsy, by Dr. Andrew Baker, the Hennepin County medical examiner, also concluded that Mr. Floyd had fentanyl and methamphetamine in his system.
Prosecutors said they would present seven additional medical experts to show that the cause of death was asphyxiation and asphyxiation is difficult to detect. Pathologists hired by the Floyd family attributed the death to asphyxiation.
The asphyxiation would put the blame more definitively on Mr. Chauvin, while the cardiopulmonary arrest could be caused by many factors. The defense argued that Mr. Floyd died of high blood pressure, heart disease, drug ingestion and “adrenaline circulating in his body.”
Mr Blackwell said Mr Floyd’s behavior was inconsistent with that of people who die of opioid overdoses, which he says fall unconscious. As Mr. Chauvin tackled him to the ground for nine minutes and 29 seconds, Mr. Floyd had screamed that he couldn’t breathe, at one point calling for his mother.
“They’re not screaming for their lives,” Mr. Blackwell said of one overdose. “They don’t appeal to their mothers. They don’t beg, “Please, please. I can not breathe. ”
He continued, “The most important numbers you will hear in this trial are nine, two, nine. What happened in those nine minutes and 29 seconds when Mr. Derek Chauvin applied this excessive force to Mr. George Floyd’s body?
Mr. Nelson, the defense attorney, sought to downplay the importance many people had taken from the video.
“There is no political or social cause in this courtroom,” he said. “But the evidence far exceeds nine minutes and 29 seconds.”
There is more than 50,000 pieces of evidence, Nelson said, and authorities have interviewed more than 200 civilian witnesses for the case.
Among the three witnesses prosecutors called to testify on Monday was a 911 dispatcher who observed the arrest on a surveillance video feed and called a police supervisor because she was concerned. Dispatcher Jena Scurry said police had held Mr. Floyd for so long that they asked someone if the video footage “froze”.
For his part, Mr. Nelson focused on Mr. Floyd’s actions on the evening of his death. Mr Floyd had been charged with using a fake $ 20 bill to buy cigarettes at Cup Foods, a convenience store, which prompted a clerk to call the police. Mr Floyd had taken pills containing methamphetamine and fentanyl, Mr Nelson said. He fell asleep in his car. He then struggled with the police, Nelson said.
How George Floyd died
- On May 25, 2020, Minneapolis police officers arrested George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, after a convenience store clerk claimed he used a fake $ 20 bill to buy cigarettes.
- Mr Floyd died after Derek Chauvin, one of the police officers, handcuffed him and pinned him to the ground with one knee, an episode which was filmed.
What happened to Derek Chauvin
- Mr. Chauvin was fired from the Minneapolis Police Force, along with three other officers. He was charged with second and third degree murder and second degree manslaughter. He is now facing trial. Opening statements are scheduled for March 29.
- Here’s what we know about the case so far and how the trial is expected to go.
How Floyd’s death sparked a movement
Once officers brought Mr. Floyd to the ground, Nelson said, he was still resisting. Mr. Floyd was eventually overpowered, Mr. Nelson said, but he appeared to challenge one of the central elements that appears to be shown in the video – that Mr. Chauvin was kneeling on Mr. Floyd’s neck.
“Sir. Chauvin used his knee to pin Mr. Floyd’s left shoulder blade and his back to the ground and his right knee to pin Mr. Floyd’s left arm to the ground,” he said.
And as he restrained Mr. Floyd, Mr. Chauvin and the three other officers at the scene became wary of the crowd growing around them and perceived a threat, Mr. Nelson said. The four officers were fired by the police department shortly after Mr. Floyd’s death, and the other three face charges of aiding and abetting second degree murder.
“There is more to the scene than what the officers see right in front of them,” he said. “There are people behind them. There are people across the street. There are cars stopping, people screaming.
The chaotic environment caused “officers to shift their attention away from Mr. Floyd’s care to the growing threat before them,” Nelson continued, suggesting that this dynamic played a role in how his client treated Mr. Floyd. .
As the trial began on Monday in Hennepin County District Court, nervous energy swept through downtown Minneapolis, where several government buildings, including the courthouse, were covered with concrete slabs and metal fences. . A helicopter circled overhead for much of the sunny, windswept day.
Reporters gathered on a lawn just south of the courthouse, where members of Mr Floyd’s family and their lawyers held a press conference before the trial began.
“They say they trust the system,” said Terrence Floyd, one of Mr. Floyd’s brothers. “Well, this is your chance to show us that we can trust you.”
Many supporters of the Floyd family have said they have seen previous cases in which video evidence was not sufficient to secure a conviction against the police. Law enforcement officers have recently killed around 1,000 people a year, experts say, but fewer than 200 officers have been charged in the past 15 years; less than 50 have been convicted.
“Let’s be clear, it’s not just Chauvin on trial,” said Reverend Al Sharpton, who has worked with the Floyd family. “The ability of the United States to manage police accountability is under trial.”
John eligon, Tim arango and Shaila Dewan reported from Minneapolis, and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs from New York.