Chauvin case: Now it’s up to the jury

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin listened to closing statements on April 19, 2021, in his trial for killing George Floyd.

Both sides gave their final arguments to the jury Monday in the murder trial of Derek Chauvin, with the prosecution imploring jurors to believe what they saw on videos — three police officers holding George Floyd down for nine minutes and 29 seconds, killing him.

The defense tried to raise doubts about the cause of Floyd’s death.

“His name was George Perry Floyd Jr.,” prosecutor Steve Schleicher said as he began nearly two hours of closing statements. “On May 25, he died face down on pavement on 38th and Chicago.”

He cautioned jurors not to fall for a defense theory that Floyd died due to a toxic mix of drugs and health problems.

“There was no superhuman strength that day,” he said, referring to what cops are taught about people with a controversial condition dubbed “excited delirium.”

“There’s no such thing as a superhuman. No superhumans. Only humans. Just a man lying on the pavement, being pressed upon, desperately crying out. A grown man, desperately crying out for his mother. A human being.”

He said all that was required of officers was a little compassion in responding to a complaint about a fake $20 bill.

Schleicher said Chauvin’s pride kicked in, and he wasn’t going to be deterred by a crowd of bystanders who had gathered and become agitated and vocal.

“He was gonna do what he wanted, how he wanted, and there was nothing they could do about it because he had the authority,” he said.

Schleicher reminded jurors “George Floyd is not on trial,” although jurors heard about Floyd’s struggles with drug addiction. He noted there was no evidence Floyd was even aware the $20 bill was fake.

He argued Floyd complied with police until they put him in the back of a squad car even though he said he was claustrophobic. When they pulled him back out after a struggle, he thanked the officers.

And then the unreasonable use of force began, he argued, with Floyd saying he couldn’t breathe 27 times in four minutes and 45 seconds. Floyd didn’t “miraculously die of a drug overdose in that time.”

It wasn’t Floyd’s enlarged heart, narrowed arteries, carbon monoxide from a tailpipe or tumor he didn’t even know he had, Schleicher said.

“George Floyd didn’t have to die that day; shouldn’t have died that day,” he said. “But for the fact that the defendant decided not to get up and not to let up, George Floyd died.”

The defense closing

Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, argued the stress of the situation combined with Floyd’s heart disease, drug use and history of hypertension caused his death, not asphyxiation. 

“We know this wasn’t asphyxiation because George Floyd had a 98% oxygen level,” he said. “How could he have been asphyxiated at the hospital with a 98% oxygen saturation level?”

He argued Chauvin’s actions were justified and authorized use of force, according to his training. Minneapolis Police allowed conscious neck restraints to be used for suspects actively resisting arrest, he said.

“The standard is not what should the officer have done; could have done: It’s what are the facts known when he used force and considering all the circumstances known to the officer, what would a reasonable officer do?” he said.

He said it’s not unusual for suspects to feign medical emergencies to avoid arrest or jail.

And Nelson again put some blame on the bystanders, noting that at the moment the prosecution said Floyd took his last breath, at 8:25 p.m., video evidence shows Chauvin pulling out his mace to keep the crowd back, and off-duty firefighter Genevieve Hansen walking up, “startling him.”

Regarding excited delirium, Nelson said that although “superhuman strength is not a real phenomenon,” officers are trained that someone under the influence of certain drugs can “become stronger than they normally are.”

He argued Chauvin didn’t intend to purposely use unlawful force, noting all the cameras around.

“Officers know they’re being videotaped. They know they’re being videotaped by themselves. They know they’re being videotaped by bystanders. They know they’re being surveilled by the Minneapolis Police Department (street) camera,” he said. “Do you do something purposefully that you know is an unlawful use of force when you have four bodyworn cameras immediately in the area?”

Instead, he said, the officers were just “doing their jobs in a highly stressful situation.”

“And it’s — it’s tragic,” Nelson said.

He reminded jurors that Hennepin County Chief Medical Examiner Andrew Baker did not list asphyxia — lack of oxygen — as a cause of death, contrary to what other medical experts testified. Nelson said he wasn’t suggesting Floyd died of an overdose; it was multiple factors that caused his death.

He spoke at length about the evidence indicating Floyd ingested a mixture of fentanyl and methamphetamine before dying.

“Millions of American suffer from opioid addiction,” he said. “It is a true crisis this country is facing.”

He argued the state must prove beyond reasonable doubt that Floyd’s health issues and the drugs in Floyd’s system played no role in his death.

(Prosecutors disagreed, saying during rebuttal the state merely needs to show Chauvin’s actions were a substantial factor in his death.)

“It flies in the face of reasonable common sense,” Nelson said. “It’s astounding.”

Rebuttal

During rebuttal, prosecutor Jerry Blackwell told jurors this case isn’t complicated: A 9-year-old who witnessed Floyd’s death nailed it when she told Chauvin: “Get off of him.”

She knew it was wrong for the officers to keep applying deadly restraint to a handcuffed, defenseless man — even after he goes unconscious, stops breathing and loses his pulse.

“You can believe your eyes,” he said. “It was what you thought it was: A homicide.”

Blackwell cautioned jurors not to believe the defense’s “story.” The defense objected, charging that Blackwell was insinuating they were offering dishonest evidence.

Blackwell reminded jurors that in over half of asphyxiation cases, there’s no evidence found in the body tissues. Blackwell said Floyd had an anoxic seizure while unconscious, which was caused by insufficient oxygen to the brain.

He noted Floyd lived 17,026 days with every disorder Nelson blamed  — including an enlarged heart — except for the 9 minutes, 29 seconds he didn’t survive while under Chauvin’s knee.

“Even when the ambulance comes, he doesn’t let up and get up,” Blackwell said. “The truth of the matter is that the reason that George Floyd is dead is that Mr. Chauvin’s heart was too small.”

Nelson moves for mistrial

After the jury left the room, Nelson accused the state of prosecutorial misconduct for implying that the defense was making up stories in its closing arguments, saying it was grounds for the judge to declare a mistrial.

Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill disagreed, denying the motion, saying he’d instructed jurors to disregard such statements about “stories.”

The judge was more sympathetic when Nelson moved for a mistrial based on the words of U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, the California Democrat who went to Brooklyn Center Saturday and said anything less than a murder conviction would be unacceptable, and encouraged protesters to take to the streets if Chauvin is acquitted.

Cahill said Waters “may have given you (Nelson) something on appeal that may result in this whole trial being overturned.”

“I wish elected officials would stop talking about this,” Cahill said angrily. He said politicians should give their opinion in a way that is respectful to the judicial branch, and their failure to do so is “abhorrent.”

But he denied Nelson’s motion for a mistrial, saying he doesn’t think Waters’ statements prejudiced the jury, which hasn’t been sequestered until now but has been told daily to avoid coverage of the case.

“A congresswoman’s opinion really doesn’t matter a whole lot,” Cahill said.

The 12-member jury is now charged with reaching a unanimous verdict on the three charges against Chauvin: second-degree murder — unintentional, while committing a felony; third-degree murder; and second-degree manslaughter.

Deena Winter is a freelance journalist who is covering the Chauvin trial for the Minnesota Reformer, which first published this story.

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