Chauvin Jurors Will Grapple With Videos, Expert Opinions

By Cara Bayles | April 18, 2021, 8:02 PM EDT

The trial of Derek Chauvin draws to an end Monday with closing arguments. After three weeks of testimony, the jury will have plenty of evidence to sift through. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Testimony has ended in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged with the murder of George Floyd. When closing statements conclude Monday, 12 jurors will sequester and decide Chauvin's fate.

The case became international news last spring, after millions of people viewed a bystander's video of Floyd's arrest. Footage showed Chauvin pinning Floyd's neck down for nine minutes, as Floyd — who was suspected of using a counterfeit $20 bill — begged him to stop, said he couldn't breathe and eventually lost consciousness.

The image of a Black man gasping for breath under the knee of a white police officer rekindled a nationwide racial justice movement that continued through the summer. Floyd's cries of "I can't breathe" — which, by prosecutors' count, he said 27 times as he died — became a rallying call at protests.

In that context, the trial was perhaps just as notable for what it didn't include. The issue of race was carefully avoided, and Minnesota Judge Peter Cahill struck from the record almost every reference to it.

For the nation watching the trial in the same week that the police killings of Daunte Wright and Adam Toledo made headlines, that may have seemed like an omission.

But for the jurors deciding whether to convict Chauvin of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, the biggest questions they face will be whether Chauvin caused Floyd's death and whether the officer was complying with the legal standard for police use of force.

They'll have plenty of evidence to sift through. During the three-week trial in Hennepin County District Court, jurors watched videos of Floyd's fatal arrest from at least six different angles. They heard from more than 40 witnesses, including traumatized bystanders who witnessed Floyd's last breaths, doctors who opined on what caused his death, and policing experts who testified on whether Chauvin acted appropriately.

Here are some of the biggest takeaways from the evidence presented at trial.

The 'Reasonable Officer' Standard

Two other officers already had Floyd in handcuffs on the sidewalk and were attempting to get him into the back of their squad car when Chauvin and his partner arrived on the scene last May.

Chauvin tried and failed to help force Floyd into the car, then pulled him out onto the street. Floyd fell to his knees, then was forced to the ground, first on his side, then on his stomach. Chauvin kept him there, with his knee pressed into Floyd's neck for more than nine minutes.

To determine whether Chauvin acted lawfully as a police officer, jurors were told to consider the standard set by the U.S. Supreme Court's 1989 Graham v. Connor decision, which found that the use of force "must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight."

The "reasonable officer" has become something of a character in police misconduct cases, with each side speculating about what this fictional archetype might do. The Graham case set out three main factors the reasonable officer might consider: "the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight."

The prosecution's use-of-force experts agreed that Floyd's alleged crime, passing a counterfeit bill, didn't merit arrest, let alone force. They said Floyd was already handcuffed and unable to pose a serious threat or flight risk when he was shoved to the ground. They all agreed the use of force was unlawful, and that Chauvin should have known from his training that Floyd was in danger of positional asphyxia while lying on his stomach. But they differed on when, exactly, Chauvin's use of force became unreasonable.

Sgt. Jody Stiger of the Los Angeles Police Department said Floyd was "actively resisting" arrest and that the way officers manhandled him at first was reasonable. But University of South Carolina law professor Seth Stoughton said Chauvin used unreasonable force from the very beginning of the encounter, because Floyd was handcuffed, outnumbered, and had stated his fear of getting into the car. Putting Floyd into the prone position at all was unreasonable, he said.

The defense's use-of-force expert, Barry Vance Brodd, testified that officers could have used more force against Floyd, particularly when they were trying to get him into the squad car and he was "actively resisting arrest." But he said he didn't consider Chauvin pressing his knee into Floyd's neck while holding him prone to be force at all. He considered it a "restraint" or control move, and said, "Any resistor, handcuffed or not, should go onto the ground in a prone control."

The differing opinions, even among the prosecution's witnesses, showed how subjective the "objective reasonableness" standard can be, according to Kenneth Nunn, a law professor and assistant director of the Criminal Justice Center at the University of Florida.

"We hide that subjective input as a scientific standard," he said. "What we're play-acting at, what we're pretending, is that this is an objective test, that what matters is what the average police officer would do in this circumstance. And in that sense it is objective, or objectified to some extent."

The standard could be particularly critical for the most serious charge against Chauvin — second-degree murder — which requires a finding that the defendant killed someone while committing a felony, in Chauvin's case, assault.

And to prove assault, the prosecution must show that Chauvin's force was criminal, not within the legal bounds of his powers of arrest as an on-duty officer, according to Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP partner David Weinstein, who served for two decades as a prosecutor in Florida.

Limited Race References

Attorneys for the prosecution and defense strived in their opening statements to remind jurors, as well as the public watching a live broadcast, that Chauvin's trial is about whether Floyd's death met the legal standard of murder, not the racial justice issues it has come to represent.

Judge Cahill, too, was careful to limit references to race, particularly during testimony from the bystanders who witnessed Floyd's death.

That required curbing the witness testimony of Donald Williams, a bystander with martial arts training who paced on the sidewalk and told Chauvin he was doing a "blood choke" on Floyd.

When Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank asked him how he felt watching Chauvin that day, Williams, who is Black, said he worried for Floyd's life.

"Seeing a man like me being controlled in a way ... ," he began to say, before Chauvin's attorney Eric Nelson of Halberg Criminal Defense objected.

Judge Cahill told the jury to disregard Williams' answer.

Race came up again during the testimony of Christopher Martin, a 19-year-old who worked as a clerk at the convenience store where Floyd allegedly used a counterfeit bill.

He described watching from the sidewalk as Floyd lay "motionless" and "limp" under Chauvin's knee.

"I was just kind of emotional," he testified. "And I went to the African American that was standing there on the curb. And I was just like, 'They're not going to help him, this is what we have to deal with.'"

The judge sustained another objection from Nelson, saying the comment would be stricken from the record.

But that doesn't mean the jury didn't hear it, Nunn said.

"You can't unring the bell," he said. "They heard it; the question is whether they're going to process that or not."

Nunn said the judge was likely concerned about "extraneous issues" coming before the jury.

"No one should decide a criminal case because the defendant or victim is a member of a particular race," he said, but he added, "Policing in America almost always takes place in a racial context. If you talk about the trend in which these cases manifest themselves, it's not just an accident of fate that George Floyd was Black and the officer was white. There's a history there you can't brush away."

The jurors are likely aware of that, according to Alexis Hoag, a Columbia University law professor and former senior counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

"Regardless of the judge's pretrial rulings, or sustaining some of these objections during the trial, it would be naïve to think that race is not relevant in this case or that the jurors are ignoring it," she said.

One moment of commentary was allowed to stay in. It came from Darnella Frazier, who was 17 when she took the infamous cellphone video of Floyd's death that went viral and garnered national attention.

On cross-examination, Nelson asked her about posting the video to social media and whether she was surprised when it went viral.

"It changed your life," he said, and she agreed.

That opened the door for Jerry Blackwell, chairman of Blackwell Burke PA, who worked pro bono for the prosecution, to ask Frazier on redirect how Floyd's death had changed her life.

"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.

Christopher Brown, who runs the Brown Law Firm PLLC and specializes in police brutality cases, said Nelson likely knew what he was doing when he opened the door for that commentary, but his plan backfired on him.

"The defense was hopeful that she would be perhaps a little less sophisticated, and would smile — sometimes, that's all you want — to smile and acknowledge that yes, this has made me internet famous," he said. "I don't think it worked out, because the redirect was so effective."

One Death, Many Videos

Floyd's death was captured from nearly every angle imaginable. Frazier's video went viral, but at least three other bystanders also used their cellphones to tape the arrest. A surveillance camera across the street captured it, too. And the four officers on the scene that day all had their body-worn cameras on.

Dr. Lindsey Thomas, an expert witness for the state, said she'd testified as a forensic pathologist in about 100 trials, but she'd "never had a case like this with such thorough documentation of the terminal event."

The videos were played over and over at trial, in full and as clips. They were slowed down and freeze-framed.

Hoag, who saw much of the trial, said she watched those videos as a former defense attorney, a former civil rights attorney and a law professor — but also as "a Black person and as a human being." She found it "impossible to view the images and the video without emotion."

"I can only imagine then how the jurors are viewing this," she said, "to repeatedly see the life force being snuffed out of a human being."

Nelson tried his best to cast doubt on the videos. He asked Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo if he was familiar with the concept of "camera perspective bias," and played footage of Frazier's video and J. Alexander Kueng's police body camera footage side-by-side.

"You would agree from the perspective of Ms. Frazier's camera, it appears Mr. Chauvin's knee is on the neck of Mr. Floyd?" he asked. "Would you agree from the perspective of Officer Kueng's body camera, it appears it was more on his shoulder blade?"

The chief agreed.

Weinstein said the defense did its best to "pick apart" the evidence and cast doubt on the videos, but it was difficult "because with that many angles and that many videos and their ability to show what happened from a 360-degree point of view, the defense is cut off from saying, 'Oh, but there was no video of that.'"

A Prior Arrest

Nelson kicked off his case-in-chief with evidence of a prior arrest that ended with Floyd being hospitalized for high blood pressure after allegedly ingesting narcotics to hide them from officers.

Nelson alleged that Floyd also ate drugs on the day he died, and he convinced Judge Cahill to allow testimony and body camera footage of the other arrest as medical evidence. That evidence was key to the defense's strategy of suggesting that Floyd didn't die because of Chauvin's actions but because of a host of other reasons — chronic heart disease, a rare tumor that may have secreted adrenaline, and drug intoxication.

Floyd's May 2020 autopsy found methamphetamine and fentanyl in his blood, and investigators found half-dissolved pills covered in Floyd's saliva in the back of the squad car that officers tried to force Floyd inside of.

Judge Cahill decided last month that evidence of the 2019 arrest could be presented to jurors, finding "there is a modus operandi to conceal drugs in part by ingesting them, but also doing so under very stressful circumstances, that is, being pulled out of a car at gunpoint and handcuffed."

Judge Cahill advised the jury that the testimony was meant "solely for the limited purpose of what effects the ingestion of opiates may or may not have had on the physical well-being of George Floyd," adding, "This evidence is not to be used as evidence of the character of Mr. Floyd."

But the fact that he had to say that suggested the evidence was somewhat prejudicial, Brown said.

"I thought he might not even allow them to disclose an arrest at all," he said, noting the jury could have just been informed of Floyd's hospitalization for ingesting drugs. "I thought he should have limited it that way. But he didn't. He allowed that it was the result of arrest to come in, which normally isn't admissible, because Derek Chauvin didn't know about that."

Weinstein said the judge was likely trying to avoid creating an appellate issue for the defense, because "it did have probative value that was not outweighed by the prejudice."

But he added that the defense used it "in a backhanded fashion" to attack Floyd's character.

"That was part of the strategy," he said.

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