Updated: April 20, 2021 1:18:06 pm
The two sides in one of the nation’s most closely watched police brutality trials returned one last time to the graphic video of George Floyd’s final moments on Monday, with the prosecution asking jurors to “believe your eyes” and the defense warning them not to be “misled” by a freeze-frame view.
After 14 days of testimony from policing experts, medical doctors, members of the Minneapolis Police Department and bystanders, lawyers made their closing arguments, urging the jurors to use common sense as the case was placed in their hands.
The prosecution focused on the 9 minutes, 29 seconds that Derek Chauvin, the white police officer charged with murder, kept his knee on the neck of Floyd, a handcuffed Black man, on a Minneapolis street last Memorial Day.
“This case is exactly what you thought when you saw it first, when you saw that video,” said Steve Schleicher, the prosecutor who delivered the closing argument. “It’s what you felt in your gut. It’s what you now know in your heart.”
In a lengthy rebuttal, the defense emphasized the 17 minutes leading up to that time — suggesting that Floyd had taken illicit drugs and had actively resisted when several officers tried to get him into a squad car. Chauvin’s lawyer, Eric J. Nelson, repeatedly told jurors to look at the “totality of the circumstances.”
“Do not let yourselves be misled by a single still-frame image,” Nelson told the jury, in response to the moment-by-moment analyses of video evidence presented by the prosecution. “Put the evidence in its proper context.”
The closing arguments were held on the 18th floor of a government building surrounded by temporary fencing and military sentries. The high security could not keep out the tremors from last week’s fatal police shooting of Daunte Wright just 10 miles away.
Gov. Tim Walz called for calm on Monday as the jury began deliberations. He declared a “peacetime emergency” to allow the police from neighboring states to be called in if necessary, joining more than 3,000 National Guard soldiers and airmen who have been deployed to assist local law enforcement.
“Local and state resources have been fully deployed, but they are inadequate to address the threat,” Walz said in an executive order.
Schools will move to remote learning later this week, and businesses have been boarded up because of the potential for unrest following a verdict.
The fatal shooting of Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, in a suburb called Brooklyn Center has cast a shadow over the proceedings.
After the jury left to begin deliberating, Nelson asked for a mistrial, saying that comments by Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., amounted to threats and intimidation. While visiting Brooklyn Center, Waters told protesters that they should “stay on the street” and “get more confrontational” if Chauvin were acquitted.
Judge Peter A. Cahill denied the request, but said, “I’ll give you that Congresswoman Waters may have given you something on appeal that may result in this whole trial being overturned.”
Cahill served as a top deputy for Amy Klobuchar, a Democratic senator, when she was the county prosecutor, and was first appointed to the bench by a Republican governor, Tim Pawlenty. The judge has won reelection several times in nonpartisan races.
The trauma of Floyd’s death, captured on video, became a clarion call for increased police accountability nationwide. At the same time, it was felt deeply and personally in Minneapolis, which still bears the scars of the rioting and arson that followed.
Inside the courtroom on Monday, lawyers made their final appeals to the jury of seven women and five men, who will be sequestered in a hotel for their deliberations.
Chauvin, 45, who spent 19 years as a Minneapolis police officer, was fired immediately after Floyd’s death, along with three other officers involved. Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder, which carries a penalty of up to 40 years in prison, and the lesser charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
The three other officers are scheduled to be tried together in August.
In-person attendance has been strictly limited throughout the trial because of COVID-19, with one spectator seat reserved for each side. On Monday morning, Floyd’s brother Philonise, who gave emotional testimony about his brother earlier in the trial, was in the Floyd family seat, later followed by a nephew, and an unidentified woman was in the Chauvin family seat.
Schleicher, speaking for the state, emphasized George Floyd’s humanity, saying that he had been compliant until he was forced to get into the squad car, and that he had pleaded for help, calling Chauvin “Mister Officer.” But, Schleicher said, Mister Officer did not help.
Speaking for less than two hours, Schleicher tried to tailor his appeal for those jurors who expressed favorable views of the police during the jury selection process. “The defendant is on trial not for being a police officer — it’s not the state versus the police,” Schleicher said. “He’s not on trial for who he was. He’s on trial for what he did.”
He said that numerous witnesses said Chauvin had violated police training and policy when he pinned Floyd facedown and kept him pinned long after he lost consciousness.
“This wasn’t policing, this was murder,” Schleicher said. “The defendant is guilty of all three counts. All of them. And there’s no excuse.”
The defense lawyer, Nelson, took a very different approach, covering a wide range of ground in a statement that took almost three hours, during which Chauvin removed his mask and paused the steady note-taking he had kept up throughout the trial.
Nelson showered jurors with what he said were discrepancies in the prosecution’s case, hoping to plant a seed of reasonable doubt with at least one of the 12.
He argued that there were significant questions about at least two key issues: whether Chauvin’s actions were allowed under Minneapolis Police Department policies and whether Chauvin had caused Floyd’s death.
Nelson emphasized the many factors that “a reasonable police officer” must consider, including whether the subject is intoxicated, whether he is resisting and whether onlookers pose a threat. To illustrate the judgment calls involved, he said that each of the prosecution’s many use-of-force experts had pinpointed a different moment at which Chauvin’s use of force became unreasonable.
“Officer Chauvin had no intent to purposefully use — he did not purposefully use unlawful force,” he said. “These are officers doing their job in a highly stressful situation, according to their training, according to the policies of the Minneapolis Police Department. And it’s tragic. It’s tragic.”
He showed a video clip of the moment it appears that Floyd took his last breath, saying that at the same time, Chauvin was drawing his mace in response to the bystanders trying to intervene, and was startled by the approach of an emergency medical technician who happened upon the scene and offered to help.
While Nelson read from police policies warning that crowds were unpredictable, prosecutors referred to the bystanders as a “bouquet of humanity” and said fate had randomly selected them — much the way the jurors were selected — to witness what they called a “shocking abuse of authority.”
One of the main questions for the jury to decide is whether Chauvin’s actions were a “substantial causal factor” of Floyd’s death.
“The fact that other causes contribute to the death does not relieve the defendant of criminal liability,” Cahill told the jury.
Nelson barely mentioned the defense experts who testified, but he tried to exploit the fact that the prosecution called numerous medical experts, saying that there were discrepancies among their findings. He said that heart disease, hypertension and other preexisting conditions, as well as Floyd’s use of fentanyl and methamphetamine, were significant contributors to his death.
“It is nonsense to suggest that none of these other factors had any role,” he said. “That is not reasonable.”
On rebuttal, Jerry Blackwell, speaking for the state, said Floyd had lived for 17,026 days without dying from his drug use or preexisting conditions, which he represented as a field of blue dots with a yellow arrow pointing to the final one.
He sought to dispel confusion about the cause of death: “You don’t need a Ph.D., you don’t need an M.D. to understand how fundamental breathing is to life.”
Blackwell said the notion that there were “two sides to every story” was “one of the most dangerous things” about the search for truth. “If it is a story, that means there can be multiple sides to the story and there could never be a truth or reality,” he said, “except that what we’re about here is getting to the truth, and not simply stories.”
Blackwell ended with a final attack on one of the defense’s arguments about the cause of death, that Floyd had an enlarged heart.
“You were told, for example, that Mr. Floyd died because his heart was too big,” Blackwell said. “And the truth of the matter is that the reason George Floyd is dead is because Mr. Chauvin’s heart was too small.”
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