Derek Chauvin’s murder trial began Monday in a landmark moment for the nationwide reckoning on race sparked by George Floyd’s death, with prosecutors saying the former Minneapolis police officer killed Floyd “without regard” and the defense saying Chauvin’s use of force was necessary to restrain a man who overpowered him.
Behind a piece of plexiglass in a tightly fortified court, prosecutor Jerry Blackwell told the jury of six men and nine women, who include two alternates, that Floyd, a Black man, was defenseless and unarmed as he was writhing on the ground in pain while Chauvin, who is white, kneeled on Floyd’s neck and back for more than nine minutes on May 25, 2020.
“He put his knees upon his neck and his back, grinding and crushing him, until the very breath,” Blackwell said before playing the viral footage of Floyd’s death in the courtroom. “Until the very life was squeezed out of him.”
<strong>“This case is not about split-second decision-making.”</strong>A masked Chauvin took notes in the courtroom as Blackwell told the jury the trial was not about every police officer or about policing in general. The prosecutor said police officers have difficult jobs, sometimes having to make life-or-death decisions in a split second. But, he said, “this case is not about split-second decision-making.”
Blackwell said Chauvin betrayed his badge when he deliberately remained on Floyd’s neck even though the 46-year-old handcuffed man on the ground verbalized 27 times that he couldn’t breathe. As Floyd cried out for his mother and came to the conclusion that he might die, Blackwell said Chauvin remained unmoved, his sunglasses still “undisturbed” on his head.
Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, told jurors to consider the “totality of the circumstances” that led to Chauvin’s encounter with Floyd, saying that the incident began when Floyd paid for cigarettes with counterfeit money and that a 911 caller thought Floyd was drunk. During a struggle, the defense attorney said, three Minneapolis police officers couldn’t overpower Floyd, who, at 6’3 and 223 lbs. was taller and heavier than Chauvin.
Floyd put drugs in his mouth before his arrest, Nelson told the jury, adding that Chauvin did not cause Floyd’s death. “This case is clearly more than about 9 minutes and 29 seconds,” Nelson said. “Derek Chauvin did exactly as he was trained to do.”
<strong>“Today starts a landmark trial that will be a referendum on how far America has come in its quest for equality and justice for all.”</strong>Chauvin has been charged with murder and manslaughter. Nine white jurors, four Black jurors and two who are multiracial will decide his fate.
During the next few weeks of testimony, prosecutors will call to the stand medical and use-of-force police experts as well as leaders in the Minneapolis Police Department, for which Chauvin, a 19-year veteran, worked until May 26, 2020. At least three bystanders will testify, including two bystanders who are or were minors at the time of the incident.
The trial comes nearly a year after Floyd’s death sparked global outcry and widespread demonstrations against police brutality and racial injustice, leading to the largest sustained social justice mobilization in modern U.S. history.
“Today starts a landmark trial that will be a referendum on how far America has come in its quest for equality and justice for all,” Benjamin Crump, one of the lawyers representing the Floyd family, said at a news conference earlier Monday. Crump urged those watching the trial to focus on the facts in the case if the defense attempts to “assassinate” Floyd’s character, saying “this murder case is not hard.”
Less than an hour before the trial began, Floyd’s family and his supporters, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, kneeled in silence for eight minutes and 46 seconds—an attempt to illustrate what Crump describes as the torturously long period Chauvin’s knee remained on Floyd’s neck.
Few have missed or failed to describe the Chauvin trial as a critical moment and an inflection point in American history. If Chauvin is convicted, the trial will make history in a city whose police department has a long history of racist incidents and a long history of police officers not being held accountable. If he’s acquitted, that would make it difficult, if not impossible, to gain convictions of any of the other officers involved and could ignite a new surge in nationwide protests.
“Make no mistake,” Sharpton said. “Chauvin is in court, but America is on trial.”