Opening statements made, first witnesses cross-examined as Derek Chauvin trial resumes
Opening statements were made on Monday in the Derek Chauvin trial, and the state prosecution team wasted zero time in addressing the jury with what happened on May 25, 2020.
Prosecutor Jerry Blackwell said to the jury that one thing they will need to keep in mind during this trial is three numbers.
"Nine two nine," he said, explaining that George Floyd was held under an officer’s knee for that time period, nine minutes and 29 seconds. Blackwell also played the viral bystander video of the incident that showed Chauvin on top of Floyd and the other three officers — J Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao — either on top of Floyd or standing off to the side.
"And as you will learn as applies to this case, never employing a necessary force or violence," he said. "You will learn what happened in that nine minutes and 29 seconds, the most important numbers you will hear in this trial are nine two nine."
The white officer "didn’t let up" even after a handcuffed Floyd said 27 times that he couldn’t breathe and went limp, Blackwell said in the case that triggered worldwide protests, scattered violence and national soul-searching over racial justice.
"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.
Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, countered Blackwell’s words, saying: "Derek Chauvin did exactly what he had been trained to do over his 19-year career."
Nelson said that Floyd resisted arrest, and Chauvin arrived to assist other officers who were struggling to get Floyd into a squad car as the crowd around them grew and became increasingly hostile, according to Nelson.
The defense also disputed that Chauvin was to blame for Floyd’s death.
Floyd, 46, had none of the telltale signs of asphyxiation and had fentanyl and methamphetamine in his system, Nelson said. He said Floyd’s drug use, combined with his heart disease, high blood pressure and the adrenaline flowing through his body, caused a heart rhythm disturbance that killed him.
"There is no political or social cause in this courtroom," Nelson said. "But the evidence is far greater than 9 minutes and 29 seconds."
Blackwell, however, rejected the argument that Floyd’s drug use or any underlying health conditions were to blame, saying it was the officer’s knee that killed him.
Chauvin, 45, is charged with unintentional second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter. The most serious charge, the second-degree murder count, carries up to 40 years in prison. This is the first trial ever televised in Minnesota.
The court saw three witnesses take the stand on Monday before the court adjourned for recess until Tuesday morning due to some technical glitches that occurred. The third witness will take the stand Tuesday as only the state prosecution team was able to cross-examine him.
The first witness was Minneapolis police dispatcher Jena Scurry, who testified that she saw part of Floyd’s arrest unfolding via a city surveillance camera and was so disturbed that she called a duty sergeant. Scurry said she grew concerned because the officers hadn’t moved after several minutes.
"You can call me a snitch if you want to," Scurry said in her call to the sergeant, which was played in court. She said she wouldn’t normally call the sergeant about the use of force because it was beyond the scope of her duties, but "my instincts were telling me that something is wrong."
The video played during opening statements was posted to Facebook by a bystander who witnessed Floyd being arrested after he was accused of trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill at a convenience store. Jurors watched intently as the video played on multiple screens, with one drawing a sharp breath as Floyd said he couldn’t breathe. Chauvin sat calmly during opening statements and took notes, looking up at the video periodically.
"My stomach hurts. My neck hurts. Everything hurts," Floyd says in the video, and: "I can’t breathe, officer." Onlookers repeatedly shouted at the officer to get off Floyd, saying he is not moving, breathing or resisting. One woman, identifying herself as a city fire department employee, shouts at Chauvin to check Floyd’s pulse.
The prosecutor said the case was "not about split-second decision-making" by a police officer but excessive force against someone who was handcuffed and not resisting.
Blackwell said the fire department employee wanted to help but was warned off by Chauvin, who pointed Mace at her.
"She wanted to check on his pulse, check on Mr. Floyd’s well-being," the prosecutor 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."
The second witness, identified as Alisha Oyler, a former shift lead at the now-closed Speedway gas station located on the corner of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue. She told the court that police had been seen multiple times in the area before the incident. Oyler recorded seven cellphone videos of the incident involving Floyd, which were presented as evidence from the state prosecution team on Monday.
Oyler was asked why she kept recording the incident as it unfolded.
"Because I always see the police and they’re always messing with people and it’s wrong," she replied. "I saw a bunch of people fighting and yelling and didn’t really know why, but now we obviously know why."
The third witness who will resume the stand on Wednesday, Donald Williams, has an extensive background in mixed martial arts. He has practiced since 2009 and is a former wrestler. Williams is one of the bystanders who can be heard on the cellphone video. He is an entrepreneur and professional fighter. He advised the court he has worked alongside police in Minneapolis as a security guard for the past 12 years at various businesses around the city.
Williams discussed chokeholds in detail from his martial arts background. He also described "tapping out" and other methods that he is knowledgeable about. The man noted that he has been rendered unconscious from a chokehold.
Williams told the court he was at the scene that Memorial Day because he had just gotten back from fishing and needed a drink. He decided to go to Cup Foods. However, he never made it inside Cup Foods because "the energy was off."
When Williams approached the area where Floyd and the officers were, he identified the position Chauvin had Floyd in as a "blood choke" — and that is when Chauvin looked up towards the camera of the bystander video that went viral. He says he could have gotten closer to the incident, but said a "fear factor" played into that as well." Williams also said that Thao told Williams, "this is what drugs do to you." He said that aggravated him, as he disagreed.
“Mr. Floyd was voicing his sorry-ness, his pain and his distress that he was going through,” said Williams. “The more the knee was on his neck and shimmys were going on, the more you see Floyd fade away.”
When Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank asked the purpose of doing a shimmy, Williams replied “to get the choke tighter” and pointed out Chauvin’s use of the technique in the bystander video.
Judge Peter Cahill made a motions ruling prior to Monday that allows Williams to testify about his training and experience in martial arts and why he thinks the techniques Chauvin used are dangerous but he cannot give an opinion about whether those were a cause of death. Williams walked over to where Floyd was being restrained by the former officers.
University of St. Thomas Law Professor Rachel Moran told 5 EYEWINTESS NEWS he is a significant witness.
“He plays that kind of unique combination of he never intended to be there, he simply walked up on the scene because he was trying to go to Cup Foods, but he has that training most of the jury and most non-police officers are lacking,” Moran said. “He has been trained specifically to use force to knock someone out, to cause them to lose consciousness.”
She believes the prosecution started with the 911 dispatcher and bystander witnesses to get the additional scene video submitted early in the trial.
“I also think the first and the third witnesses, they have worked with the police they could have a relationship where they tend to favor the police, and yet both of them were deeply concerned by the actions not only of Mr. Chauvin but also the other officers involved,” Moran said. “The prosecution made clear in their opening statements, they don’t plan to make this a referendum of whether the Minneapolis police generally does a good job. What they’re talking about is this officer Derek Chauvin and how he fell far short of objective use of force.”
Moran feels the prosecution had a stronger opening statement.
“I think the state presented a clearer theory of the case, they left little room for doubt about why they think Derek Chauvin was guilty. While the defense opening statement, I did not find to be very effective,” Moran said. “[Nelson] really did not present a consistent theory of innocence.”
Cahill noted that all 15 jurors selected showed up for jury service Monday morning. He cut the final juror admitted to have a 14-person jury. The trial is expected to resume on Tuesday starting at 9:30 a.m.
The Chauvin and Floyd families are allotted one seat each in the courtroom. Floyd’s brother Philonise represented the Floyd family on Monday. The seat for a Chauvin family member was empty, as it was all through more than two weeks of jury selection.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.