Derek Chauvin trial: Jury begins deliberations as former officer faces charges in death of George Floyd

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MINNEAPOLIS (NewsNation Now) — Jurors are beginning deliberations Monday in the trial of Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis officer charged in the death of George Floyd, after three weeks filled with countless surveillance videos, emotional testimony and a myriad of medical experts.

NewsNation will provide live coverage of the Derek Chauvin trial online and the NewsNation Now app. You can watch the trial here.

Both the defense and prosecution wrapped up their closing arguments Monday.

The state reiterated its case that Chauvin killed Floyd by keeping his knee on his neck for more than nine minutes, failing to provide aid after he became unresponsive.

The jurors deliberated about four hours before retiring for the night to the hotel where they are being sequestered for this final phase of the trial. They were due to resume Tuesday morning.

“George Floyd’s final words on May 25, 2020, were ‘Please, I can’t breathe.’ And he said those words to ‘Mr. Officer.’ He said those words to the defendant.” Schleicher said as he pointed to Chauvin. “He asked for help with his very last breath.”

The defense continued to argue Chauvin was following his training, acting as a “reasonable officer” would, while pointing to other factors including Floyd’s health as responsible for his death.

“[Chauvin] was following policy. he was trained this way. it all demonstrates a lack of intent,” Nelson said.

Before they began deliberations, Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill gave the jury instructions drawn up by the court with input from prosecutors and the defense. Cahill explained legal definitions, went over different types of evidence and the elements required to prove guilt in each of the counts against Chauvin.

“The fact that other causes contributed to the death does not relieve the defendant of criminal liability,” Cahill said, reading from written jury instructions.

Jurors are normally allowed to take copies of the instructions with them to the deliberation room, where many jurors rely on them as a kind of roadmap to interpreting the evidence.

Chauvin’s brief defense wrapped up last week with Chauvin passing on a chance to take the stand. Chauvin informed the court that he would not testify Thursday, saying he would invoke his Fifth Amendment right.

Chauvin’s right not to testify “is guaranteed by the federal and state constitutions,” said Cahill before closing arguments. “You should not draw any inference from the fact that the defendant has not testified in this case.”

Chauvin is charged with unintentional second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the May 25 death, following an arrest that happened on suspicion Floyd used a fake $20 bill to buy cigarettes at a convenience store. Chauvin has pleaded not guilty.

Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was declared dead after Chauvin, who is white, pressed his knee against his neck for about nine minutes. Bystander video footage shows Chauvin pressing his knee into a handcuffed Floyd’s neck, with Floyd repeatedly claiming that he could not breathe. Floyd’s death sparked protests and civil unrest in Minneapolis and across the U.S. over police brutality, at points turning violent.

The jury, along with two alternates, is comprised of six white women, two white men, three Black men, one Black woman and two multiracial women, according to court records. They will be sequestered in a hotel outside of deliberation hours. 

Their verdict needs to be unanimous. If convicted on the most serious charge of second-degree murder, Chauvin faces a maximum sentence of 40 years in prison.

Closing argumentS: prosecution

During his closing arguments, prosecutor Steve Schleicher repeated a phrase: “Nine minutes and 29 seconds,” — the length of time Chauvin was captured on video on May 25, 2020, with his knee pressed into the dying Floyd’s neck.

Schleicher and the prosecution hope to convince the jury that Chauvin “knew better” but did not follow police training and policies and his actions were reckless, unreasonable and warrant conviction.

“What the defendant did was not policing, it was assault,” said Schleicher, after reminding the jury that the trial was “not prosecution of the police” but of one defendant who chose “pride over policing.”

Schleicher described how Chauvin ignored Floyd’s cries that he couldn’t breathe, and continued to kneel on Floyd after he stopped breathing and had no pulse — even after the ambulance arrived — saying he “had to know what was right beneath him.”

“The defendant heard him say that over and over. He heard him, but he just didn’t listen. He continued to push him down, to grind into him, to shimmy, to twist his hand for 9 minutes and 29 seconds. He begged. George Floyd begged until he could speak no more, and the defendant continued this assault,” said Schleicher, who repeatedly used the word “assault.”

Prosecutors need to prove underlying assault for most serious charge of second-degree murder.

In this image from video, prosecutor Steve Schleicher gives closing arguments as Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill presides Monday, April 19, 2021, in the trial of former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis. Chauvin is charged in the May 25, 2020 death of George Floyd. (Court TV via AP, Pool)

It might be difficult to “imagine a police officer doing something like this,” said Schleicher, but reminded jurors that they were asked during jury selection to set aside any preconceived notions about police officers.

“George Floyd was not a threat to anyone. He wasn’t trying to hurt anyone. He wasn’t trying to do anything to anyone. Facing George Floyd that day did not require one ounce of courage. And none was shown on that day. No courage was required. All that was required was a little compassion and none was shown on that day.”

“Use your common sense. Believe your eyes. What you saw, you saw,” Steve Schleicher said, referring to the excruciating bystander video of Floyd pinned to the pavement with Chauvin’s knee on or close to his neck.

Portions of the bystander video and other footage were replayed during his closing, as Schleicher dismissed some of the defense theories as “nonsense,” saying Chauvin’s pressure on Floyd killed him by constricting his breathing.

He rejected the drug overdose argument, the contention that police were distracted by what they saw as hostile onlookers, the notion that Floyd had “superhuman” strength from a state of agitation known as excited delirium, and the suggestion that Floyd suffered carbon monoxide poisoning from auto exhaust.

The prosecutor referred to the idea that it was heart disease that killed Floyd as an “amazing coincidence.”

Schleicher concluded by reminding the jury: “You have the power” to convict and to trust the evidence they had seen throughout the trial. “It is exactly what you knew, it’s what you felt in your gut, what you know know in your heart… This wasn’t policing, this was murder.”

Closing arguments: Defense

Chauvin’s lead lawyer, Eric Nelson, later countered that Chauvin behaved as any “reasonable police officer” would, arguing that he followed his training from 19 years on the force.

He repeated a single phrase scores of times, saying Chauvin behaved as a “reasonable police officer” would in dealing with a man as “large” as Floyd, who was struggling against being put in a police car when Chauvin arrived, responding to a call for back-up.

Chauvin, dressed in a grey suit and dark blue shirt and tie, removed his face mask, worn as part of the coronavirus pandemic’s social-distancing requirements, and watched his lawyer defend him.

Nelson walked through the events of the day, moving step by step and saying what he believed Chauvin was seeing and learning after arriving on the scene, asking jurors to consider what a “reasonable officer” would do.

Nelson said jurors have to consider all the information Chauvin had from dispatchers, his arrival as two officers struggled to push Floyd into a patrol car and the increasingly upset people standing nearby and loudly pleading with them to get off the Black man.

Nelson said the prosecution has been focused on the time Chauvin had his knee on Floyd, arguing this disregards the behavior of both Floyd and the officers up until that point. Nelson said all the law enforcement witnesses testified the level of force was appropriate up until Chauvin placed his knee on Floyd.

“You have to take into account that officers are human beings, capable of making mistakes in highly stressful situations,” Nelson said. “In this case, the totality of the circumstances that were known to a reasonable police officer in the precise moment the force was used demonstrates that this was an authorized use of force, as unattractive as it may be, and this is reasonable doubt.”

Once Floyd was on the ground, Nelson said one of the witnesses said it is not uncommon for people to “pretend to have a medical emergency” to avoid being arrested, so a “reasonable officer” relies on their observations instead.

Nelson said Chauvin was also following police training in observing the bystanders on the scene, saying they were “in crisis” so he was actively watching for potential signs of aggression from the crowd.

He said a “very critical thing” happens at the “very precise moment” a witness said George Floyd took his last breath: Chauvin pulled his mace from his belt and was startled by someone coming up from behind him. Nelson said the distraction of the crowd kept Chauvin from noticing Floyd had stopped breathing.

Nelson used the same videos as the prosecution to try to prove an opposite point: The fact that Chauvin continued kneeling on Floyd even as he knew he was being filmed was evidence he believed he was responding to the scene in a reasonable way, Nelson said.

“In this case, the totality of the circumstances that were known to a reasonable police officer in the precise moment the force was used demonstrates that this was an authorized use of force, as unattractive as it may be,” Nelson said. “And this is reasonable doubt.”

CLOSING ARGUMENTS: PROSECUTION REBUTTAL

Prosecutor Jerry Blackwell had the final word, offering the state’s rebuttal argument. The prosecutor, who is Black, said that the questions about the use of force and cause of death are “so simple that a child can understand it.”

“In fact, a child did understand it, when the 9-year-old girl said, ‘Get off of him,’” Blackwell said, referring to a young witness who objected to what she saw. “That’s how simple it was. `Get off of him.’ Common sense.”

Blackwell said prosecutors only have to prove that Chauvin’s actions were a substantial causal factor in his death, not the sole cause, questioning why the former officer continued to kneel on Floyd after he became unresponsive.

“How is that a reasonable exercise of the use of force?” Blackwell said. “Reasonable is as reasonable does – what you saw here today was not reasonable.”

Blackwell questioned another argument raised by Nelson, who said there was no bruising or other evidence of asphyxia in the autopsy of George Floyd, saying an expert testified that it was not uncommon.

NOTABLE MOMENTS FROM THE TRIAL

The prosecution called two weeks’ worth of witness to the stand whereas the defense only used two days of testimony before resting its case.

Law enforcement veterans inside and outside the Minneapolis department testified for the prosecution that Chauvin used excessive force and went against his training, while medical experts said Floyd died of asphyxia, or lack of oxygen, because his breathing was constricted by the way he was held down.

Notably, Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo testified that Chauvin, 45, broke the department’s rules and ethics code.

George Floyd’s brother broke down on the witness stand last week as he was shown a picture of his late mother and a young George during the trial.

“He was one of those people in the community that when they had church outside, people would attend church just because he was there,” Philonise Floyd said. “Nobody would go out there until they seen him. And he just was like a person that everybody loved around the community. He — he just knew how to make people feel better.”

Prosecutors used a legal doctrine called “spark of life” to call his brother to testify about Floyd’s life, and previously used it to call Courtney Ross, Floyd’s girlfriend to the stand. Ross testified about her romance with Floyd and how an addiction to painkillers took hold of their life together. Minnesota is a rarity in explicitly permitting such “spark of life” testimony ahead of a verdict. Defense attorneys often complain that such testimony allows prosecutors to play on jurors’ emotions.

The defense said Floyd put himself at risk by swallowing fentanyl and methamphetamine, then resisted officers trying to arrest him — factors that compounded his vulnerability to a diseased heart and hoped to raise sufficient doubt enough that Chauvin should be acquitted.

Lawyers for Chauvin began presenting their case at the start of the third week of testimony by calling to the stand a now-retired officer who pulled over a car in which Floyd was a passenger in 2019 – a year before his deadly encounter with Chauvin.

The testimony, accompanied by body camera video of the incident, was intended to show the jury what effects the ingestion of opioids may have had on Floyd.

Chauvin’s defense called a police use-of-force expert and a forensic pathologist to help make the case that Chauvin acted reasonably against a struggling suspect and that Floyd died because of an underlying heart condition and his illegal drug use. Floyd had high blood pressure and narrowed arteries, and fentanyl and methamphetamine were found in his system.

Barry Brodd, a private consultant in the use of force by law enforcement, said Chauvin was following his training, given that he was dealing with a tense and fluid situation.

“I felt that Derek Chauvin was justified, and was acting with objective reasonableness, following Minneapolis Police Department policy and current standards of law enforcement, in his interactions with Mr. Floyd,” he said.

Guilty verdicts must be unanimous, which means Nelson needs to raise doubt in the minds of just a single juror on the various counts.

DECISION IN JURY’S HANDS

The jurors will be sequestered at a hotel in a city whose downtown is filled with National Guard troops and boarded-up windows, preparing for potential unrest.

“If I were you, I would plan for long and hope for short,” Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill told jurors on the question of how much to pack.

With the trial in session, Minneapolis has been bracing for a possible repeat of the protests and violence that broke out last spring over Floyd’s death.

The racially diverse jury will begin deliberating at a barbed-wire-ringed courthouse in a city on edge — not just because of the Chauvin case but because of the deadly police shooting of a 20-year-old Black man in a Minneapolis suburb a little over a week ago. Unrest and potential protests are expected.

Hundreds of demonstrators have gathered outside the heavily guarded Brooklyn Center police station in the days since the shooting. Protesters have shouted profanities, launched fireworks, shaken a security fence surrounding the building and lobbed water bottles at officers. Police have driven away protesters with tear gas grenades, rubber bullets, flash-bang grenades and long lines of riot police.

Minneapolis Public Schools will move students back to remote learning Wednesday through Friday in anticipation of a verdict and potential unrest.

Floyd’s death last summer sparked protests and civil unrest in Minneapolis and across the U.S. over police brutality, at points turning violent.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Amy Forliti, Stephen Groves and Tammy Webber reporting for AP. Jonathan Allen reporting for Reuters.

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