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Use of force reasonable, defense attorney argues

By Jon Collins, Brandt Williams, Riham Feshir and Matt Sepic, Minnesota Public Radio News

Derek Chauvin’s defense attorney said Monday that the ex-Minneapolis police officer acted reasonably in his use of force to control the arrest of George Floyd last May that ended in Floyd’s death.

Derek Chauvin

“The standard is not what should the officer have done in these circumstances. It’s not what could the officer have done differently under these circumstances. The standard is what were the facts that were known to this officer at the precise moment he used force … and what would a reasonable police officer have done,” attorney Eric Nelson told jurors.

Nelson argued that bystanders watching Floyd’s arrest and restraint were a concern for Chauvin.

Running a clip of the video of the arrest, Nelson pointed to the moment identified as when Floyd died, saying it was at that moment that Chauvin threatened to pepper spray the crowd as an off-duty firefighter left the curb and came nearer.

“All of these facts and circumstances simultaneously occur at a critical moment, and that changed officer Chauvin’s perception of what was happening,” Nelson said. He suggested that Chauvin did not start CPR on Floyd because the scene wasn’t safe.

Chauvin faces charges of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the killing of Floyd while the man lay handcuffed and pinned to the pavement after allegedly using a counterfeit $20 to buy cigarettes at a corner store in south Minneapolis.

Bystander video at the scene captured Chauvin with his knee pressed against Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes as the man pleaded that he couldn’t breathe and as people shouted from the curb that Floyd was dying. Chauvin and three other officers were fired.

Nelson urged jurors not to focus on the nine-plus minutes that Chauvin’s knee was on Floyd’s neck but to think about the prior 17 minutes as officers struggled to get Floyd to comply with orders and get in the back of the squad car as Floyd resisted saying he was claustrophobic.

“Human behavior is unpredictable and nobody knows it better than a police officer,” Nelson said, noting that a suspect can be compliant at one point and then fighting arrest after that.

Trying to blunt the prosecution argument that Chauvin was indifferent to Floyd’s pleading that he was in pain and couldn’t breathe, Nelson noted that the officers had called for paramedics and upgraded the call.

He also cited other trial witnesses agreeing that suspects sometimes feign a medical emergency “simply because they don’t want to go to jail.”

Weeks of trial testimony have revolved around a basic question: Who or what is responsible for Floyd’s death? The defense has pointed to Floyd’s health conditions and the drugs in his system. The prosecution has put the blame on Chauvin’s actions and his knee on Floyd’s neck.

‘Betrayed the badge’

Closing arguments in the trial began Monday with prosecutors painting the ex-officer as a cop who disregarded his training, his department’s use of force rules and Floyd’s suffering as the man lay handcuffed and pinned to the street under Chauvin’s knee.

“George Floyd was not a threat to anyone,” prosecutor Steve Schleicher told jurors. “Facing George Floyd that day did not require one ounce of courage. All that was required was a little compassion, and none was shown.”

The medical examiner ruled the death a homicide, Schleicher said. “What the defendant did to George Floyd killed him.”

Interspersing his remarks with video from the arrest and restraint, Schleicher said Chauvin’s subduing of Floyd was not within the bounds of his training and not reasonable police behavior.

“What the defendant did was not policing. What the defendant did was an assault,” the prosecutor said. “He betrayed the badge.”

Aware that jurors generally tend to defer to police officers on use of force, Schleicher worked to define Chauvin as a bad cop. “It’s not an anti-police prosecution,” he said at one point. “It’s a pro-police prosecution.”

Walking the jury through the requirements of second-degree murder — the most serious charge against Chauvin — Schleicher noted the statute’s language of “intentionally inflicting or attempting to inflict bodily harm upon the victim.”

He added: “If you’re doing something that hurts somebody, and you know it, then you’re doing it on purpose.” The state, he said, did not need to prove Chauvin intended to kill Floyd.

He noted that Chauvin was bound by his training to provide CPR and other medical aid with Floyd pleading that he couldn’t breathe just before losing consciousness. “Was George Floyd resisting when he was trying to breathe? No.”

The prosecutor said Chauvin heard Floyd’s pleadings for air, “acknowledged it, and all he did was mock him. ‘Uh huh. It takes a lot oxygen to stay that.’”

The climactic chapters of the trial began Monday morning at the Hennepin County Courthouse. Judge Peter Cahill began by walking jurors through the law and each count. The case will then go to jurors to deliberate perhaps the most consequential verdict in Minnesota history.

Bracing for a verdict

It’s not clear how fast the jury will rule once it get the case. Jurors will remain isolated at a local hotel during their deliberations. Mitchell Hamline School of Law adjunct professor Angela Porter said the desire of sequestered jurors to return home to their lives and families can sometimes be a motivating factor in their speed.

As the jurors deliberate, tensions will stay high in the Twin Cities and across the country. Floyd’s killing sparked worldwide outrage when the video of the police subduing him went viral on social media. It drove peaceful mass demonstrations that sometimes spasmed into violence.

The image of a white police officer who appeared casually indifferent to the suffering of a Black man under his knee begging for his life made race an inescapable piece of the trial and jury selection.

Among the 14 jurors chosen, there are three Black men, including two who are immigrants; one Black woman; two women who identify as multiracial; two white men; and six white women.

Two are alternates and it’s not clear who they are, so the exact racial and ethnic makeup of the jury isn’t clear.

But the public shouldn’t be in a rush to get a verdict, said Frank Aba-Onu, president of the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers.

“I think for us watching we need to give people grace and time, because they need to go through each of the points, the elements one by one,” he said. “There are people there from different walks of life, different backgrounds and they see and hear things differently and they need to come to a consensus.”

If they can’t reach a verdict, the judge can declare a mistrial and the state could try to convict Chauvin all over again.

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