Former Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin squeezed the life out of George Floyd when he arrested him last May, a prosecutor told jurors in his opening statement at Chauvin’s trial on murder charges on Monday.
Jerry Blackwell, a prosecutor with the Minnesota attorney general’s office, told jurors that officers who wear the Minneapolis police badge pledge to never use “unnecessary force or violence”.
He displayed a still image from a bystander’s phone video of Chauvin, who is White, with his knee on the neck of Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man in handcuffs, saying it showed Chauvin “grinding and crushing him until the very breath – no, ladies and gentlemen – the very life was squeezed out of him.”
Chauvin's lead attorney, Eric Nelson, said in his opening statement that the videos forming the heart of the prosecutions’ case showed the former officer followed his police training.
‘Not attractive but necessary force’
Prosecutors played the most widely seen bystander video to jurors on Monday in the courtroom, near the top floor of a tower in downtown Minneapolis ringed with high barriers, barbed wire and soldiers from the state’s National Guard. Small groups of protesters decrying police brutality blocked traffic at times in the surrounding streets.
Chauvin, dressed in a gray suit, a blue face mask and a blue shirt and tie, took pages of notes on a yellow legal pad as the dying moans of Floyd and the yelling of horrified onlookers filled the courtroom. One could be heard repeatedly shouting at Chauvin that he was a “bum” and demanding police check Floyd’s pulse as Floyd motionless.
Chauvin, 45, has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, with his lawyers arguing that the main cause of Floyd’s death, which the county examiner ruled a homicide caused by police restraints, was a drug overdose. He faces up to 40 years in prison if convicted on the most serious charge.
The Minneapolis Police Department fired Chauvin and the three other officers involved the day after the arrest.
Defence lawyer Nelson used his 25-minute opening statement to describe Floyd’s drug use, his underlying health problems and a chaotic scene during the arrest.
“This was not an easy struggle,” he said, adding that the screaming of bystanders ended up “causing the officers to divert their attention from the care of Mr Floyd”.
“Derek Chauvin did exactly what he was trained to do over the course of his 19-year career,” Nelson told the jury. “The use of force is not attractive but it is a necessary component of policing.”
Prosecutors warned the jury to ignore defence arguments that Floyd’s death was caused by an opioid overdose. Blackwell drooped his head and shut his eyes, feigning a stupor, telling the jury that someone overdosing on fentanyl would not be unconscious and not “screaming for their mother”.
“That’s not what an opioid overdose looks like,” he said.
'My instinct is telling me something is wrong'
The first witness called by the prosecutors was Jena Scurry, a Minneapolis 911 emergency dispatcher who sent police to the Cup Foods store and watched live surveillance video footage showing a police car rock back and forth outside the store as four officers struggled to get Floyd to stay in the back seat.
She said she watched the video, which was played to jurors, with growing alarm.
“I first asked if the screen had frozen,” she said. Each time she looked up, she testified, the officers were still on top of Floyd.
“My instinct is telling me something is wrong,” said Scurry, who called a supervising police sergeant. Jurors heard her say she did not mean to be a “snitch” but she wondered if the officers needed more help.
Floyd’s death ignited a global protest movement and over the preceding two weeks of jury selection, many jurors told Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill and the lawyers on each side that they recognised the scrutiny their deliberations would come under, not least by those who view the trial as a reckoning for how Black people are policed in the United States.
“It’s been a long time coming,” a gospel choir sang on Sunday evening at a prayer service attended by Floyd’s relatives. “But I know a change is gonna come.”
The service was held in a church a few blocks east of the deadly arrest.
Philonise Floyd, a brother of George Floyd, said before the service began that he had faith that prosecutors from the Minnesota attorney general’s office would see Chauvin convicted.
“The video is the proof,” he said.
The courtroom in a tower in downtown Minneapolis was ringed with concrete barriers, barbed wire and soldiers from the state’s National Guard. For blocks around, businesses are closed and windows boarded up, fearing a repeat of the arson and other property damage that occurred after Floyd’s death.
Less than three miles away, residents maintain a vigil at the intersection where Chauvin kept his knee on a handcuffed Floyd’s neck for about 9 minutes as Floyd uses his final breaths to plead for his life. Chauvin and three other officers were arresting Floyd on suspicion of passing a fake $20 bill at the Cup Foods grocery store nearby.
Four sets of barricades block police from coming to the intersection, now called George Floyd Square, which is filled with flowers, posters, murals and other tributes to Floyd.
The jury, including three alternates, is made up of six White women, three White men, three Black men, one Black woman and two multiracial women, according to court records.
“I’m thankful that it is a diverse jury,” Paris Stevens, a cousin of Floyd who works as a nurse in North Carolina, said in a telephone interview. “I’m very anxious because you don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m just glad that this process is starting.”
She and other relatives have been told by the court they must take turns in using a single chair reserved for Floyd’s family in the courtroom, which has been kitted out with plexiglass screens, hand-sanitiser stations and other anti-coronavirus measures.
Chauvin has also been allocated a single chair for his supporters, which has not been used by anyone since the trial began with jury selection on March 8 except for the occasional sheriff’s deputy overseeing security wanting to take the weight off his feet.
Activists take the knee
Legal experts have noted that US police officers have almost never been found criminally liable for killing a citizen. Chauvin’s lawyers have said they will try to convince the jury that the fentanyl, an opioid painkiller, found in Floyd’s blood by the medical examiner, played a bigger role in killing Floyd than the officer’s restraint.
Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights activist who joined the Floyd family at Sunday’s service, echoed prosecutors in calling this an “attempt to smear his name”.
On Monday morning outside the courthouse, Sharpton, Floyd’s relatives and local activists silently got down on one knee for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in a tribute to Floyd.
Tiffany Jeffers, a former Maryland prosecutor and a Georgetown law professor, said she saw the defence’s case as an uphill battle in part because of the widely seen video. All members of the jury have said they already saw at least snippets of it.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)