On the first day of Derek Chauvin’s trial, the prosecutor tells the jury, “Believe Your Eyes.”
Mr. Chauvin’s lawyer, who is a former Minneapolis police officer accused of murdering George Floyd, recommended that jurors look past the recording.
For nearly a year, the public’s interpretation of George Floyd’s death has been focused largely on a graphic video showing a white Minneapolis police officer lying for more than nine minutes on Mr. Floyd’s stomach. It has been a painful encapsulation of police bias for many.
However, as the officer’s murder trial began on Monday, his lawyer tried to reassure jurors that there was more to Mr. Floyd’s death than the gruesome video.
Mr. Floyd’s drug use was at issue, according to his lawyer, Eric J. Nelson. Mr. Floyd’s size, his resistance to police officers, and his weakened heart were all factors, according to his lawyer. It was about an angry crowd that had gathered at a South Minneapolis intersection, which he said had diverted Mr. Chauvin’s attention away from Mr. Floyd, who was Black. Mr. Nelson believed that the death was caused in part by an overdose, rather than a police shooting.
Prosecutors, on the other hand, argued that the case was just as it looked — and that the film, with its graphic, indelible moments, had shown.
In his opening statement, one of the lawyers, Jerry W. Blackwell, told jurors, “You should believe your eyes, that it’s murder.” “It’s homicide.”
The opposing approaches came on the first day of the trial in a slaying that shocked the country and sparked months of worldwide demonstrations against racism and police brutality. Mr. Floyd’s death, on May 25, sparked protests across Minneapolis, and some residents are concerned that such scenes might recur depending on the outcome of this trial.
Prosecutors started their case by showing jurors the widely circulated bystander video, but the defense team encouraged them to look past it to other topics, a technique used in previous police trials involving damning video proof.
It was used with mixed results in the cases of Rodney King, who was beaten by Los Angeles police officers in 1991, and Laquan McDonald, who was fatally shot by a Chicago police officer in 2014. Officers in Mr. King’s case were acquitted on state charges but convicted on federal civil rights charges after being seen on camera kicking him and hitting him with batons. Officer Jason Van Dyke, whose shooting of Mr. McDonald was caught on dashcam footage, was convicted of second-degree murder, the most serious charge that Mr. Chauvin currently faces.
From behind a plastic fence erected to prevent the spread of Covid-19, Mr. Nelson told jurors, “Derek Chauvin did just what he had been taught to do over the course of his 19-year career.” “The use of force is unappealing, but it is an unavoidable part of policing.”
Mr. Chauvin breached procedure, his experience, and generally accepted practice, according to the indictment.
The video may be the most explosive piece of evidence in the case, but medical evidence — and the clear scientific explanations for Mr. Floyd’s death — continued to be a crucial factor, according to the lawyers on Monday.
Mr. Floyd’s death was classified as a homicide in an autopsy report released shortly after his death, with the cause being “cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression” — essentially, that Mr. Floyd’s heart stopped because his body was deprived of oxygen due to obstructed blood flow, and that Mr. Chauvin’s physical restraint was a significant factor. Mr. Floyd had fentanyl and methamphetamine in his system, according to Dr. Andrew Baker, the Hennepin County medical examiner.
Prosecutors said they would call seven more medical professionals to testify that asphyxia was the cause of death and that asphyxiation is difficult to detect. The death was due to asphyxia by pathologists employed by the Floyd family.
Mr. Chauvin will be more definitively blamed if he died of asphyxia, while cardiopulmonary arrest may be induced by a variety of causes. Mr. Floyd died of asthma, heart disease, drug intake, and “the adrenaline rushing through his body,” according to the prosecution.
Mr. Floyd’s behaviour, according to Mr. Blackwell, was not typical of people who die of an opioid overdose, who fall unconscious. Mr. Floyd cried out that he couldn’t breathe as Mr. Chauvin held him to the ground for nine minutes and 29 seconds, at one point crying for his mother.
When someone is overdosing, Mr. Blackwell says, they aren’t crying for their lives. “They aren’t contacting their mothers. ‘Please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, ‘I can’t take a break.’
He went on to say: “In this courtroom, the most significant numbers you can hear are nine, two, and nine. What happened during those nine minutes and 29 seconds when Mr. Derek Chauvin used excessive force on Mr. George Floyd’s body?”
The defense attorney, Mr. Nelson, attempted to downplay the importance that many people had derived from the video.
He said, “There is no political or social reason in this courtroom.” “However, the evidence goes far beyond nine minutes and 29 seconds.”
Mr. Nelson said there are more than 50,000 pieces of evidence in the investigation, and police interviewed more than 200 civilian witnesses.
A 911 dispatcher who saw the arrest on a security video feed and called a police supervisor because she was upset was one of three witnesses called by prosecutors to testify on Monday. Jena Scurry, the dispatcher, said the police had been holding Mr. Floyd for so long that she wondered if the video footage had “frozen.”
Mr. Nelson, for one, concentrated on Mr. Floyd’s conduct on the night of his death. Mr. Floyd was accused of purchasing cigarettes from Cup Foods, a grocery store, with a bogus $20 bill, causing a clerk to call the cops. Mr. Floyd had swallowed tablets containing methamphetamine and fentanyl, according to Mr. Nelson. He dozed off in his car. According to Mr. Nelson, he then got into a fight with police officers.
Mr. Floyd was also fighting when the officers got him to the ground, according to Mr. Nelson. Mr. Floyd was ultimately subdued, according to Mr. Nelson, although he continued to deny one of the key elements depicted in the video: Mr. Chauvin kneeling on Mr. Floyd’s stomach.
Mr. Chauvin pinned Mr. Floyd’s left shoulder blade and back to the ground with his knee, and his right knee pinned Mr. Floyd’s left arm to the ground with his right knee, he said.
Mr. Chauvin and the three other officers on the scene were aware of the crowd gathering around them as he was restraining Mr. Floyd, and sensed a threat, according to Mr. Nelson. The Police Department dismissed all four officers immediately after Mr. Floyd’s death, and the other three are facing charges of second-degree murder aiding and abetting.
He said, “There’s more to the scene than what the officers see in front of them.” “There are staff working behind the scenes. There are people on the other side of the street. People are screaming and cars are stopping.”
Mr. Nelson went on to say that the stressful environment caused “the officers to turn their attention from the treatment of Mr. Floyd to the danger that was emerging in front of them,” and that those circumstances played a role in how his client handled Mr. Floyd.
A nervous energy pervaded downtown Minneapolis on Monday as the trial began in Hennepin County District Court, where many government buildings, including the courthouse, were encased in concrete slabs and metal fencing. For most of the sunny, windy day, a helicopter whirled overhead.
Before the trial began, reporters assembled on a lawn just south of the courthouse, where members of Mr. Floyd’s family and their attorneys held a press conference.
One of Mr. Floyd’s brothers, Terrence Floyd, said, “They say trust the machine.” “Well, now is your chance to show us that we can put our faith in you.”
Many Floyd supporters said they had seen past cases where video evidence was inadequate to win a conviction against the police. According to researchers, law enforcement officers have recently killed around 1,000 people every year, but fewer than 200 officers have been prosecuted and fewer than 50 have been convicted in the last 15 years.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who has been working with the Floyd family, said, “Let us be clear: it is not just Chauvin on trial.” “The willingness of the United States to deal with police accountability is being tested.”