MINNEAPOLIS — That’s a wrap on the first week of witness testimony in the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, charged in the death of George Floyd last Memorial Day.
Over five days, 14 jurors sat through opening statements, 19 witness testimonies and an onslaught of videos played for the courtroom.
The week started with heart-wrenching eyewitness accounts of Floyd’s death, with several witnesses breaking down as they recounted their attempts to intervene. But in the second half of the week, testimony shifted to focus on police body-camera videos, with insight from paramedics and police officers about what happened that evening, and what department policy directs them to do.
Jurors haven’t heard from medical experts yet. Their testimony will be key for prosecutors because the defense argues Floyd diedfrom a combination of medical issues, drug use and his struggle with police. Prosecutors say he died from excessive use of force — specifically, Chauvin’s knee on his neck for more than nine minutes.
Here are the highlights:
Videos, videos, videos
Jurors saw the video – the viral one Minneapolis teen Darnella Frazier recorded of Floyd’s struggle with police – almost before they got their seats warm. Prosecutors played the full video – nine-minutes-plus – during their opening arguments.
Based on their answers during jury-selection questioning, it was the first time most members of the panel saw the whole thing. But they would see and hear videos and audio of the struggle many more times before the end of the week..
There were replays from four police bodycams. From a camera installed by the City of Minneapolis above a gas station across the street from the incident. From cellphone videos filmed by other bystanders. And from security cameras inside the Cup Foods store where Floyd used a suspected counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes.
More video evidence may come as the trial continues. Cynthia Cohen, a jury consultant at Verdict Success in Los Angeles, said the screenings have given the panel a you-are-there feel. “Jurors become numb from repetitive viewings if it is a one-view camera,” said Cohen. “However, different camera angles make the experience more profound. They see something new or something more in-depth in each subsequent video.”
Derek Chauvin’s trial is traumatic – for witnesses and viewers
Almost everyone who testified about watching Floyd take his last breath beneath Chauvin’s knee became choked up on the witness stand this week. On Wednesday, the judge had to call a 10-minute recess when Charles McMillian, 61, began to sob as he watched video showing Floyd struggling with police and calling out for his mother.
Genevieve Hansen, 27, an off-duty firefighter who stumbled across the scene that day, cried recalling her pleas to the officers to allow her to administer aid to Floyd. “I was desperate to help,” Hansen said Tuesday as she teared up, touched a tissue to her eyes and took a drink of water.
Simply watching video of Floyd’s death can take an emotional toll on viewers, especially people of color who have been repeatedly exposed to microaggressions and viral incidents of racism and police brutality, said Nadine Kaslow, director of the Atlanta Trauma Alliance. But witnessing a severely traumatic event – such as Floyd’s death – in person can have “profound” psychological effects, both short and long term.
Frazier, 18, the teen who recorded the bystander video that went viral, told prosecutors the incident has changed her life. Crying, she said she has stayed up some nights “apologizing and apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life.” Other witnesses shared similar feelings of guilt for not stepping in, even though an officer kept bystanders at bay.
Many in Minneapolis are worried Chauvin’s trial will be retraumatizing, particularly for Black teenagers who are at risk of suffering serious mental health consequences. More on that here. (And it’s been hard for journalists, too.)
Defense has raised the issue of George Floyd’s drug use. So has prosecution.
Prosecution and defense attorneys began laying out their strategies over Floyd’s use of drugs — something prosecutors contend isn’t a factor in Floyd’s death but the defense contends was. The state tried to short-circuit the defense’s tactic, first raised in opening statements, by bringing to the courtroom a key witness whose testimony suggested Floyd’s tolerance of drugs was high.
Floyd’s girlfriend since 2017, Courteney Ross, 45, was emotional from the start of questioning Thursday by prosecutor Matthew Frank. Both were addicted to opiates, Ross said.
Lead defense attorney Eric Nelson pointed out that Ross and Floyd also used drugs other than opiates. But when Frank resumed his questioning, he highlighted that Ross and Floyd had not died when they used those drugs. More on Courteney Ross here.
Multiple police officers questioned Derek Chauvin’s use of force
Three Minneapolis Police Department officials said Chauvin should have stopped his deadly use of force – the pressure of his knee on Floyd’s neck – once he had stopped resisting.
Chauvin pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, not lifting it up until a paramedic gestured that he needed to place Floyd on a gurney. According to the prosecution’s account, for 2 ½ of those minutes, Floyd lay under Chauvin’s knee without a pulse.
It was “totally unnecessary,” said veteran Minneapolis police Lt. Richard Zimmerman. “First of all, holding him down to the ground, face-down, and putting your knee on the neck for that amount of time is uncalled for.”
Minneapolis police officers are trained on the “use of force continuum,” which means they are supposed to provide only the amount of force necessary and reasonable to counter a threat, up to deadly force – like a knee on the neck. Officers are required to constantly reevaluate that threat and the level of force needed: whether it’s a knee on the neck or grabbing someone’s arm by the elbow to lead them away.
“I saw no reason why the officers felt they were in danger, if that’s what they felt,” Zimmerman said Friday. “And that’s what they would have to feel to be able to use that kind of force.”
COVID-19 looms over proceedings
The coronavirus pandemic continues to affect the trial at the Hennepin County Government Center, where the courtroom holds up to 32 people at a time, separated in part by plastic barriers. (Last month, the judge mentioned during jury selection that he had received his first dose of vaccine.)
The limited capacity means just one person from each of Floyd and Chauvin’s families is allowed to be in the room at a time. Floyd’s brothers Rodney and Philonise, as well as his cousin Shareeduh Tate, were in the room at one point this week. No one was in the seat for Chauvin’s family.
Everyone in the courtroom has been wearing a face mask — except the witnesses and attorneys during questioning. That means it’s hard to make out some of the facial expressions of jurors, who are each seated at individual desks, spaced several feet apart. Chauvin, too, has been wearing a face mask as observes the proceedings and takes notes on a legal pad.
Contributing: Trevor Hughes, USA TODAY