Minneapolis – The judge at the murder trial of former police Officer Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd has begun instructing the jury on the law ahead of closing arguments.
The prosecution is set to go first Monday, hoping to convince the jury that Chauvin squeezed the life out of Floyd as Chauvin and two other officers pinned the Black man to the street for 9 minutes, 29 seconds, outside a corner market.
Prosecutors say those actions, amid Floyd’s repeated cries that he couldn’t breathe, were reckless, unreasonable and warrant conviction not just for manslaughter but also on two murder counts.
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For prosecutors, Derek Chauvin recklessly squeezed the life from Floyd as he and two other officers pinned him to the street for 9 minutes, 29 seconds outside a corner market, despite Floyd’s repeated cries that he couldn’t breathe – actions they say warrant conviction not just for manslaughter but also on two murder counts.
For the defense, Floyd, who was Black, put himself at risk by swallowing fentanyl and methamphetamine, then resisted officers trying to arrest him – factors that compounded his vulnerability to a diseased heart and raise sufficient doubt that Chauvin, who is white, should be acquitted.
Each side will pull key testimony to support their narrative for what killed Floyd in a case that roiled America 11 months ago and continues to resonate. The anonymous jury will later deliver verdicts in a downtown courthouse surrounded by concrete barriers and razor wire, in an anxious city heavily fortified by National Guard members and just days after fresh outrage erupted over the police killing of a 20-year-old Black man in a nearby suburb.
A handful of protesters gathered outside the courthouse Monday as light snowflakes blew in the wind. “No breaths. No pulse. 31/2 minutes. Chauvin didn’t let up/get up,” read one protester’s sign.
The attorneys aren’t limited by time, though legal experts say overlong arguments risk losing jurors’ attention and may be less effective. Prosecutors Steve Schleicher and Jerry Blackwell will share the closing, with Schleicher leading off and Blackwell coming on for the last-word rebuttal of defense attorney Eric Nelson’s closing.
Chauvin, 45, is charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Experts expect Schleicher to walk jurors through the elements of the charges. All three require the jury to conclude that Chauvin’s actions were a “substantial causal factor” in Floyd’s death – and that his use of force was unreasonable.
Schleicher can remind jurors of key testimony from a myriad prosecution medical experts who testified that Floyd died of asphyxiation caused by being pinned to the pavement. He and Blackwell can point to plentiful testimony from use-of-force experts who said Chauvin’s actions were clearly improper, as well as Minneapolis Police Department officials saying they were outside his training.
Video played a huge role at trial, both in buttressing the expert testimony and in driving home the emotional impact of Floyd’s anguish and death. Prosecutors can re-play video during their closings, and experts say they expect it.
Guilty verdicts must be unanimous, which means Nelson needs to raise doubt in the minds of just a single juror on the various counts. His closing is certain to return to the themes of his cross-examination of prosecution witnesses and the brief defense case he mounted.
Nelson is sure to highlight how the county medical examiner, Dr. Andrew Baker, did not conclude that Floyd died of asphyxia – putting him at odds with the prosecution’s medical experts, even though Baker did call Floyd’s death a homicide and testify that he believes Floyd’s heart gave out in part due to being pinned to the ground.
Nelson is also certain to remind the jury of Floyd’s drug use, perhaps with the same language he frequently used during the testimony phase – with questions that emphasized words such as “illicit.” Despite the long duration of Floyd’s restraint, he’s likely to again portray Chauvin’s use of force as dictated by “fluid” and “dynamic” factors that shouldn’t be second-guessed, including the prospect that Chauvin was distracted by a threatening group of bystanders.
Nelson is also likely to question perhaps the strongest single part of the state’s case – the video of Floyd’s arrest, including bystander Darnella Frazier’s video that largely established public perceptions of events. Nelson argued that camera angles can be deceptive, and used other views to suggest to jurors that Chauvin’s knee wasn’t on Floyd’s neck at all times.
“If I was Nelson, I’d do a lot of things, because a lot of things need to be done,” Joe Friedberg, a local defense attorney not involved in the case, said. “He’s in desperate trouble here.”
Fourteen jurors heard testimony, two of them alternates. If Judge Peter Cahill follows the usual practice of dismissing the last two chosen as alternates, the 12 who will deliberate will include six white and six Black or multiracial jurors.
Second-degree murder requires prosecutors to prove Chauvin intended to harm Floyd. Third-degree murder requires proof that Chauvin’s actions were “eminently dangerous” and done with indifference to loss of life. Second-degree manslaughter requires jurors to believe that he caused Floyd’s death through negligence and consciously took the chance of causing severe injury or death.
Each count carries a different maximum sentence: 40 years for second-degree unintentional murder, 25 years for third-degree murder, and 10 years for second-degree manslaughter. Sentencing guidelines call for far less time, including 121/2 years on either murder count.
Webber reported from Fenton, Mich.
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