The final week of testimony in the high-profile trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged in the death last May of George Floyd, wrapped up Thursday as tensions in the city swelled.
Chauvin has been charged with second and third-degree murder as well as second-degree manslaughter. Floyd, a Black man, died as Chauvin held him facedown on the street with his knee pressed into his neck for nearly 10 minutes. If convicted of second-degree murder ― the most serious charge ― Chauvin, who is white, faces up to 40 years in prison but would most likely get 11 to 15 years behind bars.
The state of Minnesota’s prosecution of Chauvin, led by Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank, called nearly 40 witnesses, including eyewitnesses to the fatal arrest and medical experts, over 12 days of testimony that ended Monday. The defence called six witnesses on Tuesday and Wednesday.
“From the defence point of view, all they need to do is establish a reasonable doubt,” LeRoy Pernell, a professor at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University’s College of Law, told HuffPost. “That’s one of the reasons why you see such an imbalanced number of witnesses, is that the prosecution — knowing that — wants to make sure that there’s no reasonable doubt as to the key facts.”
Closing arguments in the trial are scheduled for Monday. The jury will then try to reach a unanimous agreement on each count.
“To say that the whole nation and maybe the world is watching this case is a gross understatement,” Pernell said.
Here’s what you need to know about this week’s proceedings:
The trial wrapped up while anger at another police killing in the area began to fester.
The trial entered its third and final week of testimony Monday amid outrage over the police killing of 20-year-old Daunte Wright in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center a day earlier.
Kim Potter, a white Brooklyn Center police officer, fatally shot Wright, a Black driver, in the chest during a traffic stop. Brooklyn Center’s police chief said Potter meant to use her Taser but accidentally fired her gun at Wright. Both Potter and the police chief resigned Tuesday.
The killing prompted protests around the city, with law enforcement officers in Brooklyn Center using tear gas and flash-bang grenades to clear the crowds, intensifying the nation’s anxiety amid the nearby Chauvin trial.
Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill, who is presiding over the Minneapolis trial, denied a request from the defence on Monday to sequester the jury following Wright’s death, stating the cases were “totally” separate.
Pernell told HuffPost there was a “very good” chance that members of the jury would become aware of Wright’s death. But he expected Cahill would instruct the jury not to allow that knowledge to play a role in their deliberations.
On Tuesday, the families of Floyd and Wright gathered outside the Minneapolis courthouse to demand justice for their slain loved ones and for other Black people killed by police.
“When is enough enough?” Floyd’s nephew Brandon Williams said during the emotional rally. “At some point, we need better policing. At some point, we need officers to be held accountable, charged and convicted. Just because you are the law doesn’t mean you’re above the law.”
Floyd’s brother and two experts helped the prosecution round out their case.
The prosecution called its final three witnesses on Monday, including two experts retained by the state whose statements appeared to undermine several of the defence’s key arguments.
Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, has contended that Floyd’s death was the result of several factors, including heart disease and the presence of fentanyl and methamphetamine in his system.
Dr Jonathan Rich, a cardiologist, testified Monday that he found no evidence to suggest Floyd died of a “primary cardiac event,” such as a heart attack, or from a drug overdose.
“Every indicator is that Mr Floyd had actually an exceptionally strong heart,” said Rich, who attributed Floyd’s death to cardiac arrest due to asphyxia caused by Chauvin’s actions.
Seth Stoughton, a use-of-force expert retained by the prosecution, testified that kneeling on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, as Chauvin did while Floyd was handcuffed facedown on the pavement was “unreasonable, excessive and contrary to generally accepted police practices.”
“No reasonable officer would have believed that was an appropriate, acceptable or reasonable use of force,” Stoughton said.
Sandwiched between the two experts’ testimonies was Philonise Floyd, one of Floyd’s younger brothers, who offered the jury a glimpse into his brother’s life.
George Floyd, who was 46 when he died, had a passion for sports, especially basketball and football, Philonise Floyd said, breaking down in tears at some points. He described his brother as a loving father and a churchgoing “mama’s boy.”
“He showed us how to treat our mom and how to respect our mom,” Philonise Floyd told the court. “He loved her so dearly.”
The defence called six witnesses over the course of two days, focusing on the state of Floyd’s health.
Nelson began by highlighting an earlier run-in Floyd had with law enforcement. His first witness was a retired Minneapolis police officer, Scott Creighton, whom Judge Cahill allowed to be questioned on a limited basis to speak about a 2019 incident in which he detained Floyd during a traffic stop. Body camera footage of the incident showed Floyd in some distress — he was concerned about being shot — but capable of following instructions.
A second witness to the 2019 incident, former Hennepin County paramedic Michelle Moseng, had medically evaluated Floyd at the police station and testified that he had taken an opioid, confessing to her that he was addicted. Prosecutors had already established during the first week of testimony that Floyd had struggled with opioid addiction after initially receiving a prescription for pain.
Shawanda Hill, a friend of Floyd’s who was in the SUV with him just before his arrest on May 25, 2020, took the stand next to give the jury more details on Floyd’s condition that day. Hill was at times combative with Nelson and prosecutors as she described how Floyd had briefly fallen asleep in the car before officers woke him up — in line with the defence’s aim to portray Floyd as unwell. Body camera footage from a Minneapolis parks officer, Peter Chang, filled in a few details from the scene, showing Hill and another acquaintance of Floyd’s, Morries Hall, trying to observe Floyd’s arrest from across the street. Chang testified that he was concerned for the arresting officers’ safety.
Two expert witnesses called by the defence gave testimony that ran counter to what several other witnesses had established the week before as Nelson attempted to persuade the jury that Floyd’s preexisting health conditions mattered more to the final outcome than Chauvin’s actions.
Barry Brodd, a retired police officer and use-of-force consultant, told the jury that he did not believe Chauvin had used deadly force against Floyd ― nor did he consider Chauvin’s position atop Floyd to be force at all ― and suggested the former officer was following police training. Upon cross-examination, however, he amended some of his statements. Brodd said that he would consider an action to be a use of force if it caused Floyd pain, and he acknowledged that Chauvin’s position atop Floyd “could” have been painful. He was also corrected after stating that Chauvin’s knee was not on Floyd’s neck.
“It’s easy to sit and judge in an office on an officer’s conduct,” Brodd testified.
Nelson’s second expert witness, Dr David Fowler, former chief medical examiner for the state of Maryland, expressed doubt about the findings of Dr Martin Tobin, an expert witness for the prosecution who told the jury last week how Floyd died from a lack of oxygen. Fowler said he would have written Floyd’s death certificate much differently, attributing the death to Floyd’s heart disease.
Notably, he also suggested that Floyd’s positioning ― with his head near a police vehicle’s tailpipe ― could have exposed him to toxic fumes that might have contributed to his death. Fowler said he could not say for sure because he could not find any lab results measuring carbon monoxide in Floyd’s blood, however.
Courtroom drama unfolded Thursday morning when prosecutors announced that the doctor who performed Floyd’s autopsy approached them with the lab results that showed normal carbon monoxide levels. Cahill chastised the prosecution for failing to unearth the lab results earlier and barred them from sharing the revelation with the jury, warning that doing so would result in a mistrial. With Tobin on a tight leash, the prosecution brought him back to the stand to rebuff Fowler’s suggestion using only lab results that had been previously admitted into evidence.
Both the prosecution and the defense rest ― without Chauvin taking the stand.
The defence rested its case after Chauvin invoked his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination, choosing not to testify. He told Cahill that it was his personal decision and that he did not make it because he had been threatened to do so.
Following Tobin’s testimony, Cahill told the jury that the evidentiary portion of the trial had concluded. Closing arguments are set to begin at 9am Monday local time, after which the jury will be sequestered for deliberation, he said.
In seeking to address a likely question of many jurors, Cahill offered some advice on packing for the sequestration: “If I were you, I would plan for long and hope for short.”
Regardless of the outcome, Pernell told HuffPost, the case is bound to have extraordinary repercussions.
“What makes this case stand out so much, and why it has so much impact, is people in the African American community have been complaining and decrying disparate treatment for centuries, and the credibility that is accorded to the community has very often been low,” he said.