Derek Chauvin Trial: Week Four

This week (March 29—April 2) marked the actual commencement of the trial with a seated jury of 14 listening to the opening statements of attorneys for the prosecution and defense and then their examination and cross-examination of witnesses for the prosecution and seeing and hearing about exhibits. Here is a summary of Week Four based primarily upon the reporting of the StarTribune. [1]

Opening Statements

Prosecutor Jerry Blackwell with extensive use of videos walked the jurors through the May 25, 2020, arrest and death of George Floyd at 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in south Minneapolis. According to Blackwell, the jurors “will learn that on May 25, 2020, Mr. Derek Chauvin betrayed . . . [his police] badge when he used “excessive and unreasonable force” upon the body of Mr. George Floyd, that by putting “his knee upon Floyd’s neck and back, grinding and crushing him until the very breath, no, ladies and gentlemen, until the very life was squeezed out of him.” Moreover, Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds. That is the key number: 9:29.

Blackwell emphasized that Floyd for the first minutes of this restraint “kept saying he couldn’t breathe, calling for his mother, writhing and falling silent as an increasingly agitated group of onlookers yelled at Chauvin to ‘check his pulse.’ Despite the pleas, Chauvin “does not let up, does not get up.” 

All of this unnecessary force was because Floyd allegedly had used a counterfeit $20 bill to buy a package of cigarettes at Cup Foods, without any evidence  evidence Floyd knew it was counterfeit and which could have been handled by the police giving George a ticket.

Defense Attorney Erik Nelson emphasized the concept of reasonable doubt and urged the jurors to use common sense and reason as they heard the evidence of how Chauvin and two other officers struggled to control Floyd. “You will learn that Derek Chauvin did exactly what he was trained to do over the course of his 19-year career. The use of force is not attractive, but it is a necessary component to policing. . . .What this case is ultimately about: It’s about the evidence … It is nothing more than that. There is no social or political issue in this courtroom.”

Witnesses Testimony

1. Jena Scurry, the 911 dispatcher who handled the call that resulted in Chauvin and the other officers responding to the intersection where Floyd allegedly had used a counterfeit $20 bill at Cup Foods. She detailed how she was troubled by seeing on wall-mounted dispatch screens how Floyd’s arrest played out on city surveillance cameras. She said she glanced up at the screens and saw a police squad moving “back and forth” as officers dealt with Floyd, then moments later took him to the pavement. Multiple times she looked away and then back to see the same image of the officers keeping Floyd on the pavement. It was then she sensed that “something was not right. It was an extended period of time,” She said. “It was a gut instinct, now we can be concerned.” Scurry said she called a supervisory sergeant and reported what she saw. “I don’t know, you can call me a snitch if you want to but we have the cameras up for [squad] 320’s call, and … I don’t know if they had to use force or not, but they got something out of the back of the squad, and all of them sat on this man, so I don’t know if they needed you or not, but they haven’t said anything to me yet,” the dispatcher is heard by the jury saying in her call to the sergeant.

2. Alisha Oyler, an employee of the Speedway service station across the street from Cup Foods, on May 25, 2020, observed the police restraint of Floyd and recorded a portion of same on her cellphone.She testified that she made the videos because “police is always messing with people … and it’s not right.”

3. Donald Willians II., a security professional and a professional wrestler and mixed martial arts fighter, was on his way to buy some things at Cup Foods on May 25, 2020, when he happened to observe the three police officers pinning George Floyd to the pavement near a squad car. Williams pleaded with the officers to check Floyd’s pulse and to ease up on their pressure on his neck and back as he heard Floyd gasp and plead for air. Williams said Chauvin was using a “blood choke” hold, which compresses arteries or veins in the neck, and making Floyd sound like a fish gasping for air. Williams also observed what he called a “shimmy,” an intentional repositioning by Chauvin to tighten his hold and leverage on Floyd’s neck.

In cross-examination, Erik Nelson pressed Williams about his growing more angry and threatening the officers at the time. Williams explained he became irate because the officers “were not listening to anything I was telling him. I felt like I had to speak out for Floyd.” He also explained why he called 911 that night: “I called the police on the police…because I believe I witnessed a murder.”

4. Darnella Frazier, the teenager, now 18, filmed the video seen worldwide of Floyd’s death outside Cup Foods. “When I look at George Floyd I look at my dad, I look at my brothers, I look at my cousins, my uncles because they are all Black,” she said. “I have a Black father, I have Black brothers, I have Black friends. I look at them and how it could have been one of them. It’s been nights I’ve stayed up apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life, it’s not what I should have done it’s what he [Chauvin] should have done.” 

Nelson was brief in his cross-examination, crafting his questions to set the scene as becoming increasingly hostile to the point of creating a potential threat to the officers. Frazier agreed with Nelson that bystanders were getting louder and angrier, but she added that she didn’t think anyone was ever threatening to Chauvin.

5. Judeah Reynolds, the 9-year-old cousin to Frazier also witnessed Floyd pleading for his life. “I was sad and kind of mad and it felt like it was stopping his breathing and it was hurting him,” she said. Defense attorney Eric Nelson did not cross-examination the girl, who was then excused.

6. Alyssa Funari, who was 17 at the time she witnessed Floyd’s death and began recording with her cell phone. Her previously unseen footage was played in court. “It was difficult because I felt like there wasn’t really anything I could do,” she said. “As a bystander I was powerless there, and I was failing to do anything.”

7. Kaylynn Gilbert was also 17 when she arrived at Cup Foods with Funari. She said she had a “gut feeling” that something was wrong. “I saw [Chauvi}) digging his knee into [Floyd’s] neck more. He was putting a lot of pressure into his neck that was not needed.”

8. Genevieve Hansen, age 27, was a Minneapolis firefighter who was off-duty when she encountered the scene and attempted to render aid to Floyd, but was rebuffed by Chauvin and the other officers. There is a man being killed, and I would have been able to provide medical attention to the best of my abilities, and this human was not provided that right,” she said. Hansen testified that Chauvin appeared “very comfortable with the majority of his weight balanced on top of Mr. Floyd” while pinning him to the pavement with his knee.

In his cross examination of Hansen, defense attorney Eric Nelson raised potential inconsistencies in her testimony compared to previous statements to investigators, such as whether Chauvin had one hand in his pocket, or whether or not she had described the bystanders as comprising a “heavy crowd.” He also reminded Hansen that she earlier had described Floyd as a small man, despite his being roughly 6 feet 3 inches tall and weighing well more than 200 pounds.

He asked her whether she ever had a citizen yell at her or tell her she was doing her job wrong while fighting a fire. She repeatedly said that it would not faze her, because she is confident in her training. After exchanges with Nelson that grew testy at times, Judge Peter Cahill dismissed the jury for the day and admonished Hansen not to argue, and that it is Nelson’s job to ask her questions.

9. Christopher Martin, age 19, was the Cup Foods clerk who sold Floyd a pack of cigarettes and suspected the $20 bill Floyd used was counterfeit. After he attempted twice to get Floyd back in the store, his manager summoned the police. Martin was seen in exterior store video footage pacing about near the arrest scene and clasping his hands atop his head. Martin said he was feeling “disbelief and guilt.” Why? “If I would have just not taken the bill, this could have been avoided.”

The clerk said that when he first saw the bill, “I noticed it had a blue pigment to it, kind of like a $100 bill would have, so I found that kind of odd and assumed it was fake.” Martin said store policy meant he would have to pay for any counterfeit currency he or his co-workers accepted. “I took it anyway and was willing to put it on my tab, and then I second guessed myself,” he said.

10. Christopher Belfrey, 45, was with his fiancée and picking up something to eat from Cup Foods that night, when he parked behind Floyd’s SUV. He began recording a video with his phone when he saw Office Thomas Lane point a gun at Floyd and pull him out of the vehicle. Belfrey then moved his car across the street to avoid “commotion” and resumed recording as the officers sat Floyd on the pavement and questioned him. “It startled me when I seen the officer raise his gun, I started recording.”

11. Charles McMillian, 61, was the first witness on the scene after officers escorted Floyd from across the street, then struggled to get him into their squad car. McMillian initially encouraged Floyd to cooperate because once in handcuffs “you can’t win,” he testified. McMillian cried on the stand as he described feeling “helpless.” He confronted Chauvin after Floyd was taken away in an ambulance. “I think I said to him, ‘Five days ago I told you at the end of the day go home to your family safe, and that the next person go home to their family safe, but today I gotta look at you as a maggot.’”

12. Lt. James Rugel, head of the Minneapolis Police Department’s Business Technology Unit, was on the stand while the state played body camera videos from officers Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng, Tou Thao and Chauvin.

13. Courteney Ross. George Floyd’s girlfriend for three years before his death, she emotionally described meeting him for the first time at the Salvation Army Harbor Lights Minneapolis shelter where he was a security guard. Thereafter they started dating and developed a relationship They both suffered chronic pain and had prescriptions and became addicted with opioids and occasionally obtained drugs off the street. She said Floyd typically used oxycodone and obtained them through other people’s prescriptions to ensure that they were safe. Shortly before Floyd’s death, they ha taken a pill that acted more as a stimulant, Ross said. “Both Floyd and I, our story is a classic story is of how we both get addicted to opioids,” she testified. “We got addicted and tried really hard to break that addiction many times.” The defense has contended that illicit drug use played a role in Floyd dying and not anything Chauvin did to him on May 25.

14. Seth Bravinder, a Hennepin EMS paramedic who responded with his partner to a call for medical assistance at 38th and Chicago on May 25th, 2020, where George Floyd lay unconscious pinned beneath the three officers. Bravinder said “there were multiple officers on top of the patient, . . . I assumed there was potentially some struggle still [going on] because they were still on top of him.”

Bravinder and his partner loaded Floyd into the ambulance and began working on him. He said full cardiac arrest is “not a good sign for successful resuscitation. Basically, just because your heart isn’t doing anything at that moment, it’s not pumping blood. It’s not a good sign for a good outcome.”

Defense attorney Eric Nelson’s questions addressed in part the gathering crowd at 38th and Chicago and noted that Floyd was moved quickly in the ambulance to a different location before continuing on to HCMC. The defense earlier in the trial has touched on how bystanders might have created an atmosphere that was potentially threatening to the officers at the scene.

15.Derek Smith, a Hennepin EMS paramedic and partner to Bravinder, upon arrival at the scene, checked Floyd’s pulse and immediately noted there was no pulse and Floyd’s pupils were dilated. “I looked to my partner, I told him ‘I think he’s dead, and I want to move him out of here and begin care in the back [of their ambulance]. Smith also noted the agitated crowd of bystanders. However, thee two paramedics continued to work on Floyd in the ambulance, including directing Officer Thomas Lane, who joined them in the ambulance, to deliver chest compressions while they attempted various lifesaving attempts en route to HCMC. Smith said Floyd never regained a pulse, but they continued attempting to save him. “He’s a human,” Smith said. “I was trying to give him a second chance at life.”

16.Capt. Jeremy Norton, a Minneapolis Fire captain who responded to 38th and Chicago after Floyd had been lifted into the ambulance. NortonHe testified that he encountered an “agitated to distraught” off-duty firefighter Genevieve Hansen and other bystanders. In the ambulance the ambulance Floyd was “an unresponsive body on a cot.” Afterward, he called his supervisors to report what happened. “I was worried that a man had been killed in police custody…and then I also wanted to notify my supervisor that there was an off-duty firefighter that was a witness at the scene.”

17. David Pleoger, a retired Minneapolis police sergeant in the Third Precinct, but in May 2020 was the supervisor to Chauvin and the other three officers the night of Floyd’s death. He fielded concerns through a 911 dispatch on May 25 about possible excessive use of force by these officers while detaining Floyd. He then headed to the scene while questioning Chauvin by phone on what had happened, but Chauvin did not mention that he had placed his knee on Floyd’s neck. The officer said Floyd was going “crazy [and] wouldn’t go in the back of the squad.”

Later that night Chauvin did disclose that he had used his knee to hold down Floyd, but did not say for how long, The sergeant after his subsequent review of the officers’ body-worn camera videos said the officers could have, and should have, ceased their restraint.

18. Lt. Jon Edwards. The head of the Third Precinct, Edwards wss on duty for the overnight shift on May 25th when he was summoned to secure the scene at 38th and Chicago  after Floyd had been taken to HCMC. Officers Lane and Kueng were still there in their squad car, and Edwards had them turn off their body cameras and leave the car so that it could be secured. Edwards then tried to interview witnesses, but the only one still there (McMillian) refused to give his name or respond to questions.

19. Lt. Richard Zimmerman, a 36-year veteran of the Department and in May 2020 the head of the Homicide unit, testified that after he had seen the body camera footages of the four officers, he had concluded that it was “totally unnecessary” for Chauvin to put his knee on the handcuffed Floyd. Pulling him face down to the pavement and placing his knee to his neck for that length of time was uncalled for. “I see no reason why this officer felt they were in danger.”

On cross-examination by Erik Nelson, Zimmerman admitted that as an administrator he rarely has to use force, that police situations can be fluid and that officers must quickly adapt to what is called “scene security.”

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[1] A subsequent comment to this post will list the articles about this week in the StarTrbiune, the Washington Post and the New York Times. The first three weeks of the trial were devoted to the attorneys examination of potential  jurors and Judge Peter Cahill’s resolving various issues. (See these posts to dwkcommentareis.com: Derek Chauvin Trial: Week One (Mar.15, 2021); Derek Chauvin Trial: Week Two (Mar.21, 2021); Derek Chauvin Trial: Week Three (Mar. 24, 2021). See also List of Posts to dwkcommentareis—Topical: The Killing of George Floyd, dwkcommentareis.com.

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As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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