The former Minneapolis police officer charged with killing George Floyd went on trial Monday, with prosecutors showing the jury video of Derek Chauvin pressing his knee on the Black man’s neck for several minutes as onlookers yelled at him repeatedly to get off and Floyd gasped that he couldn’t breathe.
In opening statements, prosecutor Jerry Blackwell told the jury that the number to remember was 9 minutes, 29 seconds — the amount of time Chauvin had Floyd pinned to the pavement with his knee last May.
The white police officer “didn’t let up, he didn’t get up” even after a handcuffed Floyd said 27 times that he couldn’t breathe and went motionless, Blackwell said.
“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,” the prosecutor said.
Underscoring the central role that video will play in the case, the prosecution played the footage for the jury during opening statements. The video was posted to Facebook by an bystander who witnessed Floyd’s arrest after he was accused of trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill at a convenience store.
“My stomach hurts. My neck hurts. Everything hurts,” Floyd says, and “I can’t breathe officer.” Onlookers repeatedly shout at the officers to get off the 46-year-old Floyd. One woman, identifying herself as a city Fire Department employee, shouts at Chauvin to check Floyd’s pulse.
The widely seen video sparked outrage across the U.S. and led to widespread protests and scattered violence, along with a national reckoning over racial injustice and police brutality.
The timeline differs from the initial complaint filed last May by prosecutors, who said Chauvin held his knee to Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes, 46 seconds. In the following weeks, demonstrators staged “die-ins” lasting 8 minutes, 46 seconds, and 8:46 became a rallying cry in the case. There was no immediate explanation from prosecutors.
A jury of 14 people will hear the case — eight who are white and six who are Black or multiracial, according to the court. Two of the 14 will be alternates. The judge has not said which ones will be alternates and which ones will deliberate the case.
Legal experts fully expected prosecutors to play the video to the jury early on.
“If you’re a prosecutor you want to start off strong. You want to frame the argument — and nothing frames the argument in this case as much as that video,” said Jeffrey Cramer, a former federal prosecutor and managing director of Berkeley Research Group in Chicago.
Chauvin, 45, is charged with unintentional second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter.
The prosecutor said bystander witnesses would include a Minneapolis Fire Department first responder who wanted to administer aid. He said Chauvin pointed Mace at her.
“She wanted to check on his pulse, check on Mr. Floyd’s well-being,” Blackwell said. “She did her best to intervene. When she approached Mr. Chauvin …. Mr. Chauvin reached for his Mace and pointed it in her direction. She couldn’t help.”
Almost all of the jurors selected during more than two weeks of questioning said they had seen at least parts of the video, and several acknowledged it gave them at least a somewhat negative view of Chauvin. But they said they could set that aside.
About dozen people chanted and carried signs in the middle of the street outside the courthouse entrance as Floyd family attorney Ben Crump, the Rev. Al Sharpton and members of the Floyd family passed by on their way inside. The group also carried a makeshift coffin, on top of which they placed flowers.
Crump said the trial would be a test of “whether America is going to live up to the Declaration of Independence.” And he blasted the idea that it would be a tough test for jurors.
“For all those people that continue to say that this is such a difficult trial, that this is a hard trial, we refute that,” he said. “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.”
The trial is expected to last about four weeks at the courthouse in downtown Minneapolis, which has been fortified with concrete barriers, fencing, and barbed and razor wire. City and state leaders are determined to prevent a repeat of damaging riots that followed Floyd’s death, and National Guard troops have already been mobilized.
The key questions at trial will be whether Chauvin caused Floyd’s death and whether his actions were reasonable.
For the unintentional second-degree murder charge, prosecutors have to prove Chauvin’s conduct was a “substantial causal factor” in Floyd’s death, and that Chauvin was committing felony assault at the time. For third-degree murder, they must prove that Chauvin’s actions caused Floyd’s death, and were reckless and without regard for human life.
The manslaughter charge requires proof that Chauvin caused Floyd’s death through negligence that created an unreasonable risk.
Unintentional second-degree murder is punishable by up to 40 years in prison in Minnesota, with up to 25 years for third-degree murder, but sentencing guidelines suggest that Chauvin would face 12 1/2 years in prison if convicted on either charge. Manslaughter has a maximum 10-year sentence.
Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, was expected to use his opening statement to tell jurors that medical testimony and use of force experts will show a different view. Nelson has made clear that the defense will make an issue of Floyd swallowing drugs before his arrest, seeking to convince the jury that he was at least partially responsible for his death.
The county medical examiner’s autopsy noted fentanyl and methamphetamine in Floyd’s system, but listed his cause of death as “cardiopulmonary arrest, complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression.”
“This case to us is a slam dunk, because we know the video is the proof, it’s all you need,” Floyd’s brother Philonise said Monday on NBC’s “Today” show. “The guy was kneeling on my brother’s neck … a guy who was sworn in to protect. He killed my brother in broad daylight. That was a modern-day lynching.”
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