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6 Takeaways From the First Week of the Derek Chauvin Trial

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6 Takeaways From the First Week of the Derek Chauvin Trial

The first week of the murder trial of Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis was marked by emotional accounts from bystanders who watched Mr. Chauvin pin George Floyd to the ground for more than nine minutes in May.

The prosecution presented testimony, often accompanied by tears and shaking voices, from people who were there during the fatal arrest of Mr. Floyd, along with hours of video evidence and additional testimony from paramedics and law enforcement officials who said that Mr. Chauvin’s use of force was unnecessary.

Prosecutors also introduced the issue of Mr. Floyd’s drug use, which is expected to be a crucial part of Mr. Chauvin’s defense; Mr. Chauvin’s lawyers are expected to argue that Mr. Floyd’s death was a result of his drug use. The trial, one of the most viewed in decades, comes with the memory of last summer’s protests for racial justice fresh in people’s minds.

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Here are six key points from the first week of the trial.

On Monday, each side laid out its strategy in opening statements[1].

Eric J. Nelson, the lawyer for Mr. Chauvin, made clear on Monday that he would attempt to convince jurors that the videos of Mr. Floyd’s death did not tell the full story. The case “is clearly more than about 9 minutes and 29 seconds,” Mr. Nelson said, referring to the time that Mr. Chauvin knelt on Mr. Floyd. He signaled that he planned to argue that Mr. Chauvin had been following his training, that his knee was not necessarily on Mr. Floyd’s neck, and that Mr. Floyd’s death may have been caused by drugs.

One of the prosecutors, Jerry W. Blackwell, urged jurors to “believe your eyes, that it’s homicide — it’s murder.” Prosecutors call all of their witnesses before the defense begins to lay out its case, so the week was heavily weighted toward the prosecution’s arguments, but the strategies of both sides began to come into view.

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The trial began with powerful testimony from a series of witnesses to the arrest[2], many of whom broke down in tears while recounting what they saw. They included several women who were under 18 at the time of the arrest, as well as a 61-year-old man who spoke with Mr. Floyd while he was pinned to the ground. From the convenience store clerk at the Cup Foods where Mr. Floyd bought cigarettes to an off-duty firefighter who yelled at the officers as Mr. Floyd became unresponsive, they conveyed a shared sense of trauma from what they saw that day.

By highlighting the emotional trauma Mr. Floyd’s arrest caused witnesses, prosecutors seemingly hoped to convince jurors that Mr. Chauvin’s actions had been clearly excessive to people who saw them in real time. One witness, Darnella Frazier, now 18, testified that she has been haunted by what she saw, sometimes lying awake at night “apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life.”

For the first time, the final moments before Mr. Floyd’s arrest were shown in detail. Surveillance video from Cup Foods, along with testimony from the store clerk[3], showed Mr. Floyd walking around the store, chatting and laughing with customers, and eventually buying a pack of cigarettes with a $ 20 bill that the clerk suspected was fake.

Footage from police body cameras then replayed the arrest from beginning to end. It showed an officer approach Mr. Floyd with his pistol drawn, and captured audio of Mr. Floyd’s fearful reaction: “Please, don’t shoot me,” he said. Mr. Floyd appeared terrified, first of the pistol, then of being held in a police car. As Mr. Chauvin pinned him to the ground, the footage captured the moments when the officers checked for a pulse and found none, but took no action.

On Thursday, jurors heard from Courteney Ross, Mr. Floyd’s girlfriend at the time of his death. Through stories of their first kiss, their dates and his hobbies, prosecutors used Ms. Ross’s testimony[4] to show Mr. Floyd’s humanity as a father, partner and friend.

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Ms. Ross’s testimony also brought one of the most important aspects of the trial to the forefront: Mr. Floyd’s drug use. The role that drugs did or did not play in Mr. Floyd’s death is expected to be a crucial element of Mr. Chauvin’s defense, and prosecutors called Ms. Ross to the stand to get in front of the claims of Mr. Chauvin’s lawyer.

Ms. Ross said that she and Mr. Floyd had first been prescribed painkillers to ease chronic pain, but that when the prescriptions ran out, they continued to buy the pills from others. They had begun a battle for sobriety, sometimes avoiding the drugs before they relapsed again. In the weeks before Mr. Floyd’s death, Ms. Ross said, she suspected that he had begun using again.

Prosecutors sought to show that Mr. Floyd had built up a high tolerance of the drugs, making it less likely that he died of an overdose; Mr. Floyd had methamphetamine and fentanyl in his system at the time of his death, according to a toxicology report.

Two paramedics who responded to the scene both testified that they saw no signs of life from Mr. Floyd upon their arrival. One of them, Derek Smith, felt Mr. Floyd’s neck while police officers were still on top of him, and said he found no pulse. Mr. Smith’s attempts to revive him, including the use of a defibrillator and a machine that provides chest compressions, did nothing to improve Mr. Floyd’s condition. Though the paramedics did not address what exactly killed Mr. Floyd, their testimony seemed to support prosecutors’ claim that Mr. Chauvin’s actions resulted in his death.

On Friday, Lt. Richard Zimmerman, the longest-serving officer in the Minneapolis Police Department, offered scathing condemnation of Mr. Chauvin’s use of force[5]. He said Mr. Chauvin violated police policy and called his actions “totally unnecessary.” Putting a knee on someone’s neck while they are handcuffed in a prone position, he said, qualifies as “deadly force.”

“If your knee is on a person’s neck, that can kill them,” Lieutenant Zimmerman said, adding that people who are handcuffed generally pose little threat to officers. Mr. Zimmerman’s testimony, bolstered by his more than 35 years on the force, could be a major setback for a crucial aspect of Mr. Chauvin’s defense — that his actions were not only legal, but within the bounds of his training.

Will Wright

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6 Takeaways From the First Week of the Derek Chauvin Trial
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