CHAUVIN TRIAL - Observations of the first week of the trail by a retired trial attorney
I apologize for the length of this post but it is an important moment in history for this country. This essay covers the entire first week of the trial.
Observations after first day of Chauvin Trial on March 29, 2021:
I have lived through too many high-profile murder trials to allow myself a scintilla of hope that Eric Chauvin will be convicted of killing George Floyd, but I will try to hold out hope. I feel compelled to watch this trial, just as I felt compelled to watch the O.J. Simpson trial back in 1995. If my memory serves me that was the first trial widely broadcast by Court TV. I was a fairly new lawyer at the time and was addicted to the spectacle. It was a great opportunity to learn about jury trials, which in real life are few and far between for most lawyers. The vast majority of cases settle before going to trial.
My first observation of this trial taking place at the Hennepin County Court is the difference conducting a trial during COVID-19 makes. The attorneys need to remain at their desks or at the podium and cannot roam around the courtroom or hover over the witnesses. Exhibits are handled through the computer and the screens allow the witnesses to mark on the exhibit to indicate where they were standing or the direction they were walking. Nothing is left to the imagination with that much visual input for the jury.
This is one of those cases where everything was videoed by many people and from many different angles. The jury has been repeatedly exposed to the image of Mr. Chauvin kneeling on Mr. Floyd’s neck and two officers kneeling on his back and legs.
There are not only videos, but also audio recordings of people reacting to watching Mr. Floyd struggle, cry out 27 times in the course of 4 minutes that he can’t breathe, cry out for “mama,” and then stop breathing.
The jury heard the audio of a dispatcher calling the officers’ supervising sergeant to report suspicious police conduct. That particular dispatcher had never done that before in her 7 years on the job.
I had never seen the entire video taken by Darnella Frazier until I saw it during the prosecution's opening statement. I've never watched any other videos relating to the death of George Floyd. Now I've watched the 9-minute video and the street camera video, which depicts the view from across the street and shows all three officers kneeling on Mr. Floyd for the entire approximately 9 minutes.
I'd never before seen Mr. Floyd appear to stop breathing 4 minutes and 45 seconds after the three officers first pinned him face down on the ground, with his hands cuffed behind his back.
I'd never before seen how they stayed in that position for an additional 4 minutes and 44 seconds until Mr. Floyd was rolled like a large rag doll onto the stretcher, placed on the gurney with the handcuffs still on and his arms pinned behind his back, and put into the ambulance. Between the time the officers finally got off of Mr. Floyd and the time he was put into the ambulance, no one administered emergency CPR on Mr. Floyd, who had no pulse.
Day 2 of Chauvin Trial. Viewing the trial is not for the faint of heart but I'm compelled like a moth to the flame to do it. The prosecution is calling witnesses of the crime. First was the completion of Mr. William's testimony. He is a Mixed Martial Arts professional and was the man begging Chauvin to get off Mr. Floyd's neck. Next witness was Darnella, who was the person who videoed the entire 9 minutes of Chauvin on Mr. Floyd's neck. The video went viral and it has changed her life. When the prosecutor asked her how what she saw that day affected her life, she testified as follows:
Attorney Blackwell asks, “How has what you saw affected your life.” Darnella responded with obvious emotion, saying, “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. I have a Black father. I have a Black brother. I have Black friends. And I look at that, and I look at how that could have been one of them.” She tearfully went on to say that she stays up at night apologizing for not doing more for George Floyd and “not physically interacting, not saving his life.” That is such a great burden for an 18-year-old to live with for the rest of her life.
What struck me the hardest is when she described Chauvin's demeanor. He did nothing (except when he got out his mace and threatened to spray a bystander who was a trained firefighter who was trying to help), said nothing, and looked as though he did not care one bit for Mr. Floyd's life.
The defense's cross examination is trying to suggest that the "large crowd" was an unruly mob. Darnella completely disagreed and in fact most of them remained on the curb and admittedly grew louder and louder in their exhortations to the police to stop killing Mr. Floyd. It fell on deaf ears.
Darnella's cousin, who was 9 years old when she witnessed the crime, testified that when the ambulance guy came to check on Mr. Floyd, Chauvin kept his knee on his neck while the EMS checked for pulse. EMS had to remove Chauvin from Floyd's body because he could not be convinced verbally to let up on Floyd.
Day 3 of Chauvin Trial – The first Witness is Christopher Martin, who was employed at the Cup Foods and sold cigarettes to George Floyd. They showed video from the store surveillance camera, which is the first time the public has seen video from inside the store. Mr. Floyd walks in and chats briefly with Mr. Martin. Mr. Martin noted Mr. Floyd’s tall stature and asked him if he played baseball. Mr. Floyd said he played football. Based on that brief exchange, Mr. Martin concluded that Mr. Floyd looked and acted high. It appears the prosecution is trying to take the wind out of the sails of the defense case by letting that cat out of the bag early.
Mr. Floyd was in the Cup Foods for at least 15 mins., presumably having some work done to a cellphone before he actually purchased the cigarettes from Mr. Martin. Mr. Floyd is mostly just standing around, fiddling with his cash, chatting with customers and staff, purchasing a banana, stretching, doing a little dancing (there was no audio so you can’t hear if any dance music is playing in the store), and then jogged down to the area where the cigarettes are sold. Mr. Martin can be seen holding the twenty-dollar bill up in the air and he testifies that he suspected it to be fake, but he didn’t do anything about it and let Mr. Floyd leave the store. At first, he decided to eat the loss (the store policy is that all cashiers who accept fake money have to reimburse the store for the loss) but then he changed his mind and reported it to the manager. The manager told him to go out to the car and get the cash from Mr. Floyd. Ultimately, the manager sent Mr. Martin and co-workers out to the car twice, with no success. After than is when the police were called.
At this point the prosecution showed a different video from a different surveillance camera. Between the store surveillance camera and the surveillance camera from the restaurant across the street, the jury was able to see all the comings and goings from the moment Mr. Floyd entered Cup Foods to when Mr. Martin was told by his manager to go try to retrieve the money owed. Mr. Martin testified that Mr. Floyd was visibly upset about the situation, but he remained calm in the driver’s side of the car. The unidentified friend of Mr. Floyd, who was sitting in the passenger side of the car, did all the talking with Mr. Martin and/or his co-workers.
The testimony revealed that the friend of Mr. Floyd’s had been in the store earlier and passed a fake bill, which Mr. Martin called him on. So, during the conversation at the car, there was discussion about that incident and the friend passed another fake bill, which was once again identified and ripped in half. Mr. Martin testified that he believed Mr. Floyd was unaware that he had a fake bill and that it was his friend who was trying to pass fake bills. That is why Mr. Martin said he was willing to pay the store because he felt Mr. Floyd was innocent.
Sadly, when Mr. Floyd was pinned to the ground, Mr. Martin and his co-workers were among the bystanders watching him die and Mr. Martin can be seen on the video with his hands on his heads and his arms bent like wings above his head. When asked why he had his hands and arms like that, he said he felt “disbelief and guilt.” He said, “If I would have just not taken the bill, this could have been avoided.”
Imagine the trauma and guilt this young man of 19 years old has to live with.
On cross examination, the attorney focused on the fact that Mr. Floyd was high and dancing in the store. They will argue that this is evidence that Mr. Floyd was on drugs.
All I could think about when I saw Mr. Floyd dancing in the store was how many times I’ve found myself dancing down the aisle at Market Basket because I was grooving to the music. I’ve also been known to do a little rhumba at the check-out counter. I was totally sober and I doubt anyone would accuse me of being on drugs. That’s because I’m white and older and people would just say I was a little crazy. But if I were a Black man dancing down the aisle, they’d call me a druggy. That is racism, plain and simple.
Day 4 of the Chauvin trial started with Mr. Floyd’s girlfriend, Courteney Ross, testifying. The purpose of her testimony was to humanize Floyd (as she affectionally called him) and she succeeded. When asked to describe the day she met George, she broke down in tears for quite some time. It was emotionally wrenching.
She met him in August of 2017 when he was working as a security guard at a Salvation Army shelter. She was in a very vulnerable state trying to meet up with the father of one of her children to plan a birthday party. George noticed her emotional state and went over and asked, “Can I pray with you?” That was the beginning of their relationship, which she admitted was complicated because they were both addicted to opioids as a result of physical injuries. The addiction began as a result of becoming addicted the prescription opioids and escalated to buying drugs on the street or from Mr. Floyd’s friend, Mr. Hall (the man who was with Mr. Floyd the day of his death).
The point the prosecution was trying to make was when Mr. Floyd was taking pills, he was able to handle them without trouble or landing in the hospital. It was only when he strayed into taking heroine on one occasion that he ended up in the hospital as a result of an overdose on March 6, 2020 and stayed there for 5 days. The defense has already indicated their defense is that Mr. Floyd died of a drug overdose. The prosecution has to prove otherwise, so they are laying the foundation to dispute the overdose theory. Ultimately a long line of experts will testify and battle over that ultimate issue.
Courteney was able to testify that George never had any adverse reaction to the pills, prescribed or not. In fact, they basically gave George the relief he needed to live as normal a life as possible, free of pain as he engaged in his highly active athletic life. She described their life together, and as I said before, portrayed him as a normal guy with a lot of energy and love to give all around. She also testified as to how much he was devastated by his mother’s death in May of 2018.
After George’s overdose in March, Courteney testified they were both drug free until about two weeks before his death. He apparently purchased pills from Mr. Hall. Courteney noticed they were not pain killers but stimulants and she had an uncomfortable reaction to them that made her sleepless and jittery. But that was it. Neither of them landed in the hospital with those pills. The point the prosecution is making is that the pills did not kill George, the police did.
The second witness was one of the paramedics that arrived on the scene approximately 5 minutes after George stopped breathing. His partner immediately checked for pulse, which did not exist and checked his pupils. They decided to load George onto the ambulance where the equipment was that they needed to use to try to revive him. It took 2 mins 10 secs to do that. One of the officers went with the paramedics and helped with chest compressions on George. The paramedic then drove the ambulance to the remote location. He testified into detail the efforts made on George’s behalf, but the most important fact is that George never returned from the dead. They arrived at the hospital (assuming you can believe the time stamps on the photographs exhibited during the paramedics testimony) approximately 25 minutes after arriving on the scene.
On cross-examination, the defense attorney got the paramedic to admit that when someone is revived after an overdose, they can be extremely violent. This is trying to lay the foundation for their argument that the reason the officers kneeled on Mr. Floyd and did not stop kneeling on him until the paramedics arrived is because they were afraid he would wake up and become violent. How do you spell “coward?” Three men with guns against one man with his hands cuffed behind his back.
Day 4 of Chauvin Trial – The afternoon witnesses included the second paramedic who tried to revive Mr. Floyd, a member of the fire department who was called to the scene, and the supervising sergeant who went to the scene after receiving call that force had been used.
The most important information elicited from the paramedic was that he thought Mr. Floyd was dead at the time he arrived and checked his pulse, which was non-existent. Derek Smith stated “I was trying to give him a second chance at life,” when asked why he was doing certain medical procedures. During cross examination, Mr. Smith stated, “there is no reason any police officer could not do chest compressions,” implying that it would have been the prudent thing to do once Mr. Floyd stopped breathing.
It should be noted that the body cam videos revealed that while the three officers were restraining Mr. Floyd, Officer Lane asked twice whether they should roll Mr. Floyd onto his side. Chauvin said no and even after Mr. Smith found no pulse, Chauvin’s knee remained on Mr. Floyd’s neck until the paramedics got the gurney ready and only at that point did Chauvin move off of the lifeless Mr. Floyd.
The purpose of calling the fire department captain was to show that there was a serious mix-up in communication. They wasted at least 5 minutes looking for their “patient,” until dispatch informed them to go to the corner of 36th and Park where the ambulance was working on Mr. Floyd.
Sergeant David Pleoger was asked about police policies regarding use of force. He was in charge of initially investigating the claim of excessive force. Ultimately, because the suspect died in police custody, he had to refer the investigation up the chain of command, so he could not offer conclusion regarding use of force. He was able to testify based upon his experience and knowledge of police policy that, “When Mr. Floyd was no longer offering up resistance to the officers, they could have ended their restraint.”
The defense attorney attempted to get him to admit that there were all sorts of other factors the police could have considered when deciding whether to end restraint, such as the unruly crowd and the possibility that if Mr. Floyd revived that he would be violent.
On re-direct the prosecutor inquired about the critical thinking model which takes in information, evaluates, and sometimes adjusts conduct. After doing so sometimes the officer will end up taking less drastic measures. Some information that might be relevant is whether subject is resisting. If not resisting, there is no longer need to continue to restrain them. It would be reasonable for officer to determine the subject’s medical condition. For example, if subject is no longer breathing or if subject no longer has a pulse. In such a case, officer would need to do something less violent, like render medical assistance. Sgt. Pleoger agreed with all of the above leading questions asked by the prosecutor without objection from the defense attorney.
Day 5 of Chauvin Trial – the prosecution is now presenting evidence about what happened after the ambulance took Mr. Floyd’s lifeless body away from the scene. The first witness was Sgt. Edwards, who was the midnight shift supervisor who was called to the scene by Sgt. Pleoger, the first supervisor to arrive on the scene. Sgt. Edward took over securing the scene with several of his officers. His testimony was setting the scene for how the investigation started, what was done, and who showed up. Sgt. Edwards finally learned that Mr. Floyd died at about 10:13 p.m.
The next witness was Lt. Richard Zimmerman, chief homicide detective who has #1 seniority in the police department, having served 36 years with MNPD. His credibility was established without objection by the defense. He was called to the scene by his commander and arrived at about 9:56 p.m. Upon getting a lay of the land, he called in two sergeants in his unit. When Sgt. Dale arrived at about 10:13 that is when he found out Mr. Floyd had died.
It should be noted that Mr. Floyd’s time of death was called at 9:25 p.m., 1 hour 24 mins after the 911 call was placed by the employee at Cup Foods.
Now that a death has occurred, Lt. Zimmerman turned the case over to the State Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA). Later in the evening, Lt. Zimmerman reviewed the video by Darnella Frazier. The next day he watched all of the videos from the body worn cameras. After testifying at length about the amount of training all the officers must take on an annual basis regarding use of force, plus testifying about the police policies regarding use of force, Lt. Zimmerman gave his opinion that it was “totally unnecessary” for Chauvin to keep his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck after he had Mr. Floyd on the ground and after Mr. Floyd had stopped resisting. He saw no reason for officers to feel danger at that point, which would have justified the continued use of force. It was “uncalled for.”
Lt. Zimmerman also testified that an officer has a duty to provide medical assistance as any first responder should do. Chauvin obviously did not do this.
The defense once again tried to bring home the point that Mr. Floyd could have been violent if he had been revived. Lt. Zimmerman agreed that he has seen that happen. But he pointed out repeatedly that a man in handcuffs behind his back presented little to no threat to an officer. The defense attorney suggested the handcuffs could have been put on wrong and he could have broken free and used it as a weapon against the officer. The look on Lt. Zimmerman’s face was incredulity as he admitted that was possible.
I would submit that a dead man is hardly capable of breaking free of handcuffs! One wonders what the jury is thinking when they hear the defense attorney continue to raise his theories of the defense during cross examination. It is all conjecture and speculation.
That ended testimony for Day 5. The judge noted that the case is proceeding far quicker than they had anticipated, so he was willing to let the jury leave early. My observation is that the trial is flying by. The prosecution is leading all the witnesses through their testimony, which would normally not be allowed. One wonders if the defense attorney is not educated about the rules of evidence or whether he just wants to speed through the early witness testimony to get to the crux of his case, which is about the drug use and other medical issues that he is arguing is what caused Mr. Floyd’s death.