Chauvin trial prosecutors are working on behalf of a traumatized community

Oliver Laughland
·5-min read

The murder trial of Derek Chauvin, which concluded its first week of testimony on Friday, saw a wave of witnesses come before the jury, with many offering deeply personal and vivid accounts of their experiences on 25 May 2020.

At times the trial has felt unique in comparison to other officer involved murder cases that have made it to court, partly as a result of prosecutorial strategy but also the very specific circumstances of the death of George Floyd, the 46-year-old Black man killed during a police restraint.

Related: Detective says Chauvin knee on neck a 'totally unnecessary' use of deadly force

The court’s docket may title the case State vs Derek Chauvin but, as one reporter covering the trial pointed out, the first week of hearings has often felt like a literal iteration of “the people v” with prosecutors working on behalf of a community traumatized by the violence they witnessed.

During opening arguments lead prosecutor Jerry Blackwell told the jury they would hear from “a veritable bouquet of humanity”, including children, senior citizens, shop clerks and off-duty first responders, each of whom witnessed Floyd die under Chauvin’s knee, where he was held while handcuffed for nine minutes and 29 seconds.

The results were both forensic and powerful testimony.

Darnella Frazier, the teenager who recorded eyewitness video of Floyd’s death, told the jury: “When I look at George Floyd, I look at my dad. I look at my brother. I look at my cousins, my uncles, because they are all Black.” She added: “It’s been nights I stayed up apologizing and apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life.”

Charles McMillian, a 61 year-old witness who confronted Chauvin after Floyd was taken away in an ambulance, was asked by prosecutors to explain how he felt watching Floyd die. “I feel helpless. I don’t have a mama either. I understand him.”

Genevieve Hansen, an off-duty firefighter trained in medical first response, spoke of watching the incident and feeling powerless to intervene. “I got there and I could have given medical assistance. That’s exactly what I should have done,” she said, her voice trembling. She broke down when describing how “totally distressed” she felt.

The testimony was raw, but it will serve a very real purpose for the prosecution, who have charged Chauvin with second- and third-degree murder and manslaughter, for establishing what happened.

Firstly, Chauvin’s defense lawyer Eric Nelson has argued that he and the other officers were distracted by the crowd of onlookers during their restraint of George Floyd, who Nelson characterized as unruly and chaotic. The witnesses’ first-hand testimony is a complete contrast to this depiction.

But it is also important to compare this prosecution to other recent murder trials involving police officers, where prosecutors have sometimes had to rely on limited or no bystander testimony at all.

For example in the trials of the Baltimore police officers accused of killing Freddie Gray, the prosecution struggled to establish that the 25-year-old unarmed Black teenager had been subjected to a so-called “rough ride” that led to a fatal spine injury, relying on expert evidence rather than eyewitnesses.

In the case of Walter Scott, an unarmed Black man killed in North Charleston, South Carolina, the prosecution relied on a single witness, Feidin Santana, who saw the incident and recorded it on film. Santana’s lone eyewitness testimony was not enough to secure conviction at the trial of former officer Michael Slager, who, as the only other eyewitness, testified in his own defense. The trial ended with a hung jury, with Slager later pleading guilty to separate federal charges.

For the prosecution to be able to present a consensus view among a large group of bystander witnesses marks a major strength in their case.

If the first four days of bystander testimony marks the first phase of the prosecution, it seemed clear by the end of day five that lawyers are moving to their second phase where experts and former colleagues of Chauvin from the Minneapolis police department have begun to testify that his use of a knee-to-neck restraint was a disproportionate use of deadly force.

“Totally unnecessary,” in the words of Lt Richard Zimmerman, who testified on Friday against his former colleague. “If your knee is on a person’s neck that can kill them,” he added.

The testimony is already highly damaging to Chauvin’s defence. During opening arguments Chauvin’s lawyer made clear much of his defense will centre around the suggestion that the protracted use of the restraint was justified because Chauvin had acted according to department policy.

“The use of force is not attractive but it is a necessary component of policing,” Nelson told the jury.

But that point is likely to be under further strain with testimony next week. In a rare, if unprecedented move, the prosecution will call the Minneapolis police chief, Medaria Arradondo, to testify against his former officer, adding even further weight to the argument that Chauvin’s actions flew in the face of department policy.

The third phase of the prosecution seems likely to focus on the conclusion that Floyd’s death was caused by the restraint itself.

The critical component to this is the medical examiner’s report, which labelled the cause of death homicide, caused by “cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restrain, and neck compression”. The autopsy also noted “other significant conditions”, including fentanyl intoxication, recent methamphetamine use and signs of heart disease.

The prosecution have indicated that a pathologist from the Hennepin county medical examiner’s office, Dr Lindsey Thomas, will testify in court over the findings, which are likely to be challenged by defense witnesses as well as cross examination.

While the document itself is definitive in an administrative manner – that Floyd died directly as a result of the restraint he was put under – it will still be contested at trial. And Nelson made clear in opening arguments he plans to cast doubt over some of its findings.

He will argue that Floyd died of cardiac arrhythmia, due to a number of complicating factors including Floyd’s use of drugs.

The prosecution has already been out on the offensive to battle this argument, calling Floyd’s partner, Courteney Ross, to testify about the couple’s battle with addiction. But it seems likely that the issue will be revisited continually throughout the trial, which resumes again on Monday.