Reporter’s Notebook: Inside the courtroom as Derek Chauvin invokes Fifth Amendment

The security at the Hennepin County Government Center is striking when you walk up. There are multiple fences circling the building and plaza, with barbed wire between. The National Guard is stationed on the inside of the fence, along with local law enforcement. They have to remove padlocks on two fences in order to let you into the area.

Two more security checkpoints follow once you enter the building.

It struck me the courtroom felt smaller than it appeared on the live stream. As you walk in the door, the juror seats are spaced out on the right side of the room in two rows, with seven jurors in each row. There were notepads on each desk, the jurors leave them behind at the end of the day. Some desks had multiple notebooks on them. They varied in size.

The defense and prosecution each have two tables on the left side of the room, with the defense closer to the judge. The prosecution are in the back half of the room. The press table is against the wall, appropriately placed between the two sides. A lectern is set up in the middle of the room for the lawyers to use as they examine each witness.

The print pool reporter and I were among the first to arrive in the courtroom, walking in together and watching as the prosecutors arrived one by one, starting with Steve Schleicher. Derek Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, arrived shortly after Attorney General Keith Ellison and Josh Larson, a member of the Attorney General’s Office. As we waited for proceedings to begin, there was a level of anticipation in the courtroom over whether Derek Chauvin would testify.

After the prosecution and defense met with Judge Cahill, Nelson went into the hall and returned with Derek Chauvin. Chauvin walked very quickly across the courtroom to his seat where he immediately pulled out his notebook and pen.

Closing arguments set to begin Monday as both sides rest cases in Chauvin trial

The jury hadn’t entered the courtroom at this point.

The proceedings started with Judge Cahill asking Derek Chauvin to take a wireless microphone from the bench. Both Chauvin and Nelson took off their masks as Chauvin invoked his Fifth Amendment right.

Chauvin has removed his mask from time to time during the proceedings but I noted this was possibly the first time we’d seen Chauvin’s face for any real length of time, which also made it even more obvious when he smiled while Nelson questioned him about his decision. Despite being required, the conversation almost felt casual.

Chauvin took notes throughout the morning’s proceedings. A family member or friend of his, who would not speak with us, watched attentively from the back wall.

George Floyd’s cousin, Arthur Reed, entered the courtroom around 9:30 a.m., after Chauvin invoked his Fifth Amendment right. Reed also carefully watched the events unfold. He told me during a break that Floyd’s family didn’t expect Chauvin to testify and that they are ready for this all to be over. He said they feel the state has presented a strong case.

The jury was brought into the room following a morning break, quietly filing into their seats. As Dr. Tobin gave his rebuttal testimony for the state, they all paid attention. At least half of the jurors were taking notes at any given time, two jurors even continued to do so during a break.

Full State vs. Chauvin trial coverage

Because the jurors were wearing masks, it was very hard to gauge their reactions. The same goes for Reed, Chauvin’s supporter, and the legal teams.

After Dr. Tobin’s testimony, Judge Cahill announced another break. At this point, the jurors started to talk amongst each other. Some conversations seemed more serious than others. As groups formed, one of the largest was among the younger jurors. Nearly half of the jurors are in their 20s or 30s.

There was no visible reaction from the jury when Judge Cahill announced closing arguments would begin on Monday and said, “I would plan for the long and hope for the short.”

There was, however, a seriousness that fell over the courtroom. The jurors remained silent as they filed out for the weekend but we could hear their chatter resume after they walked out the door.

An element of uncertainty permeated the rest of the day as we waited to learn whether the legal teams would go back on the record in the afternoon. I waited in the Media Business Center, where a handful of journalists were working, before rushing back across the street when we received 15 minutes’ notice they would be resuming.

When the defense, prosecution and Judge Cahill made a record of the jury instructions at 3 p.m., the jury was absent. Chauvin also waived his right to attend. Neither Chauvin’s supporter nor a Floyd family represented attended the proceedings.

After a short 30 minutes, court was adjourned until Monday.