Derek Chauvin trial Day One: Five things to know

The murder trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who faces three criminal counts for the death of George Floyd, began Monday in downtown Minneapolis with the replaying of the harrowing last moments of Floyd’s life.

Graphic cellphone footage showing Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for roughly nine minutes was carried live on cable television on the first day of the highest-profile criminal case in recent memory.

Floyd could be heard pleading with Chauvin multiple times, saying that he couldn’t breath. Chauvin’s knee remained even after Floyd became unresponsive. Floyd was ultimately pronounced dead at an area hospital at the age of 46.

The death and the video became the catalyst for a summer dominated by unrest and nationwide Black Lives Matter protests demanding the end to police brutality and systemic racism. It opened a trial that is expected to last up to a month. Chauvin faces three criminal counts: second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

Here are the five key takeaways from the trial’s first day.

Harrowing video is first day’s most compelling moment

The prosecution’s opening argument was given by Jerry Blackwell, a Minneapolis-based lawyer who was brought onto the case by Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison (D) and is working the case pro bono.

“You will learn that on May 25, 2020, Mr. Derek Chauvin betrayed this badge when he used excessive and unreasonable force upon the body of Mr. George Floyd,” Blackwell told the jury. “That he put his knee upon his neck and his back, grinding and crushing him until the very breath … until the very life was squeezed out of him.”

“I will tell you that you can believe your eyes,” Blackwell continued. “That it’s a homicide.”

During his hourlong opening, Blackwell played the graphic cellphone video footage.

The video of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck lasted nine minutes and 29 seconds; Blackwell called the length of time the “three most important numbers in the case.” 

Cause of death emerges as pivotal point

How Floyd died will be central to how the case plays out. Blackwell highlighted the cause of death stated by the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office in its autopsy report of Floyd: “cardiopulmonary arrest [the stopping of both the heart and lungs] complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression.”

“You will learn that he did not die from a drug overdose. He did not die from an opioid overdose,” Blackwell told the jury. 

It is known that Floyd struggled with opioid addiction; trace amounts of fentanyl and methamphetamine were found in Floyd but were not listed as a cause of death.

The defense pushed back against this, with Chauvin defense attorney Eric Nelson telling the jury in his opening argument that Floyd died from “a cardiac arrhythmia that occurred as a result of hypertension, coronary disease ingestion of methamphetamine and fentanyl, and the adrenaline throwing, flowing through his body, all of which acted to further compromise an already compromised heart.”

Nelson added that despite the stated cause of death, Hennepin County Medical Examiner Andrew Baker noted no “telltale signs of asphyxiation” when sharing his findings with law enforcement following his autopsy.

911 dispatcher is first day’s big witness

Jena Lee Scurry, the 911 dispatcher, was the first witness of the trial called by the prosecution.

Scurry, who has worked as a dispatcher for seven years, told the court that she initially thought her feed for the fatal incident was frozen because Chauvin had knelt on Floyd’s neck for a long time.

“Something was not right. It was an extended period of time,” Scurry told the court. “It was a gut instinct.” 

Scurry acknowledged that she was not a police officer and was not trained in the Minneapolis Police Department’s use of force standards. Nonetheless, what Scurry saw led her to call a supervising sergeant to report the incident, though by this time, Floyd was already being transported to an area hospital.

“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. … 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,” Scurry said in the call replayed in for the court. “So I don’t know if they needed you or not, but they haven’t said anything to me yet.”

Also testifying Monday was 23-year-old Alisha Oyler — who worked at the gas station across the street from the scene and captured moments of the situation on her phone — and 33-year-old Donald Williams, who was present at the scene as well.

Defense focuses on ‘common sense’

Defense lawyer Eric Nelson centered his defense on the claim that common sense is on Chauvin’s side.

“When you review the actual evidence, and when you hear the law and apply reason and common sense, there will only be one just verdict, and that is to find Mr. Chauvin not guilty,” Nelson told the jury during his opening.

Nelson countered the prosecution’s opening, saying that the trial is “clearly more than about nine minutes and 29 seconds.”

Chauvin, Nelson further argued, followed the Minnesota Police Department’s use of force policy.

“You will learn that Derek Chauvin did exactly what he had been trained to do for the course of his 19-year career,” Nelson said.

Chauvin and the three other officers on the scene were fired from the force the day after Floyd’s death.

Burden of proof

All of the charges against Chauvin require the prosecution to prove the former police officer’s culpability beyond a reasonable doubt.

The number of charges helps the prosecutors, as it raises the chances of getting a conviction.

Chauvin’s third-degree murder charge is somewhat unique, as Minnesota is one of a few states in the country to have such a charge.

The standard of proof for third-degree murder is less than it is for second-degree murder, but it still carries a hefty maximum sentence of 25 years.

For Chauvin to be convicted by the jury of murder in the third degree, the prosecution would need to prove that Chauvin acted without the intent to kill Floyd but in a “eminently dangerous” way “evincing a depraved mind, without regard for human life.”

Securing a second-degree murder conviction is a more strenuous task.

Second-degree murder in Minnesota can be classified as either intentional or unintentional; Chauvin’s second-degree charge is the latter.

Prosecutors would need to prove without a reasonable doubt that Chauvin killed Floyd unintentionally while kneeling on his neck. As part of this, they would need to show that Chauvin had intent to commit aggravated assault and battery against Floyd.

For the manslaughter charge to stick, the prosecution will need to prove that Chauvin “consciously” acted in a manner that had the chance of causing “death or great bodily harm” to Floyd.

Tags Black Lives Matter Derek Chauvin trial Keith Ellison Minneapolis Minnesota police reform
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