Trial of Ex-Cop Derek Chauvin Continues in Minneapolis

Jack Matthews, Staff Writer

This past week marked the beginning of the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis Police Officer accused of murdering George Floyd on May 25, 2020. Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter, and he has pleaded not guilty to all charges. 

The trial began almost a year after Floyd’s death sparked protests and civil unrest in cities and towns across the country and raised new questions as to the role of police when it comes to detaining and subduing suspects. Chauvin and three other officers tried to arrest Floyd after police were called on him for allegedly trying to pay for cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill at a Cup Foods store in South Minneapolis. 

A $27 million settlement was approved by the Minneapolis City Council for the Floyd family on March 12 of this year, which created problems with the selection of jurors for the criminal case of Chauvin. Two potential jurors said that the settlement swayed their opinion on the guilt of the former officer and that they could no longer be impartial, and thus were dismissed from the case. Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill, who is presiding over the case, denied Defense attorney Eric Nelson’s request to delay moving the case because of the publicity, saying “there’s no place in Minnesota untouched by that publicity.”

Prosecutors leaned heavily on video evidence throughout their arguments, with Prosecutor Jerry Blackwell presenting the nine minute and 29 second video of Chauvin pinning Floyd to the pavement with his knee during his opening statement. 

“He put his knees upon his neck and his back, grinding and crushing him, until the very last breath – no, ladies and gentlemen – until the very life was squeezed out of him,” Blackwell said. 

Nelson, Chauvin’s attorney, countered by saying Derek Chauvin did “exactly what he had been trained to do over his 19-year career.”

Other video included body camera footage of the officers at the scene, including Chauvin, which featured officers asking Chauvin if they should turn Floyd on to his side to help his breathing, to which Chauvin said no, as well as the officers searching and failing to find a pulse on Floyd as they pinned him to the ground. Security footage from the Cup Foods store that Floyd allegedly used a counterfeit bill at was also presented, in which Floyd appears to be somewhat impaired. 

The defense has argued that the cause of Floyd’s death was not asphyxiation by the officers but instead a combination of a heart condition and a drug overdose. The county medical examiner found that Floyd’s heart stopped as a result of the restraints and compression on his neck but also noted that underlying health issues and the presence of fentanyl and methamphetamine in his system as “other significant conditions.”

Along with video evidence, testimony from eyewitnesses and other people tied to the case were presented throughout the week. All witnesses were called by the prosecution, and the defense has yet to call a single witness. 

What defined the testimony of the onlookers to those nine minutes and 29 seconds was an outpouring of emotion. Some felt guilty that they did not do more to help and others felt anger that all they could do was stand and watch as Floyd was being killed. Eighteen-year-old Darnella Frazier, who took the video of Floyd’s last moments, said of Chauvin’s actions, “He didn’t care. It seemed as if he didn’t care what we were saying.” Chauvin’s attorney argued that the crowd grew angry and agitated at the scene, and that they posed a threat to the officers that could have impeded their work. Donald Williams, another onlooker, testified that he called 911 after paramedics took Floyd away from the scene “because I believed I witnessed a murder.”

Two other key witnesses that testified this week were Floyd’s girlfriend Courtney Ross and Lieutenant Richard Zimmerman, head of the Minneapolis Police Homicide division and most senior person on the force. 

Ross told the story of how she and Floyd met at a Salvation Army shelter, where he was working as a security guard. She also told the court about their struggle with opioid addiction, which stemmed from chronic pain that they both experienced. She explained that Floyd had overdosed in March of 2020, and that during the coronavirus quarantine they worked together to try and get clean. However, she suspected that he had begun using again a few weeks before his death, testimony that matches with the drugs found in his system.

Lieutenant Zimmerman was asked questions pertaining to the use of force by Chauvin and the other officers and whether they were acting within their training. He testified that kneeling on Floyd’s neck while he was handcuffed and on his stomach was “totally unnecessary,” saying that “that could kill them.” When asked if the officers should have let up the restraint once he was handcuffed, Zimmerman replied “absolutely.” He asserted that officers have a duty to provide care for a person in distress, even if an ambulance was coming, and that the officers should have turned Floyd on to his side or back so his breathing would not be restricted. 

The trial continues this week, and experts say that it will most likely last through this week and into next at least. The defense is expected to call witnesses to try and paint the death of Floyd as a medical emergency as a result of his heart condition and drug usage as opposed to homicide. The other three officers at the scene of Floyd’s death have all been fired and charged with aiding and abetting Chauvin on all counts.