A Riveting Day in Court

The first day of the Derek Chauvin trial began yesterday morning at Hennepin County Courthouse, and the proceedings produced dramatic video and first-hand witness accounts of George Floyd's death.

Screen grab showing Donald Williams testifying during the Derek Chauvin murder trial at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis, Minnesota on March 30, 2021. (Photo by live stream video/via Hennepin County Courthouse)

The trial of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin began yesterday morning, as attorneys for the prosecution and defense began to explain to the jury exactly how George Floyd was killed last August. Prosecutor Jerry Blackwell employed the use of repetition by telling jurors that this trial is “about Derek Chauvin,” not all police in general, and that 9 minutes and 30 seconds were two of the three most important numbers in this case." (Click here to watch the entire first day’s court proceedings.)

Prosecuting attorney Jerry Blackwell used a bold and effective strategy by correcting the 8:46 timing that had previously been understood as the total length of time that Chauvin knelt on the neck of Floyd — a move that prosecutors argue clearly caused his untimely death. The number 8:46 had come to represent a profound symbol, one that succinctly denoted police brutality and it was used throughout the summer and fall on giant protest signs for the Black Lives Matter Movement.

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By correcting the timeframe for Floyd’s death, prosecutors were able to capitalize on the notoriety and outrage over 8:46 and raise the ante even further with a third number. Derek Chauvin forced his knee over the airway of George Floyd for 9 minutes and 30 seconds, a fact that is undisputed and egregious. Blackwell also introduced another heartbreaking number — twenty seven.

George Floyd told police 27 times that he could not breathe while he was dying. Prosecutors explained to the jury that in addition to saying, “I can’t breathe,” over and over, he told police “my stomach hurts, my neck hurts, everything hurts.” Mr. Floyd begged for his mother, said to tell his kids he loved them and then said, “I'm dead.” Floyd pleaded for one last time: “Come on, man. Oh, oh. I cannot breathe. I cannot breathe. Ah! They'll kill me. They‘ll kill me. I can't breathe. I can‘t breathe,” then he said nothing more.

Officer Derek Chauvin did not move during this time, other than to tighten his chokehold on Floyd. For 9 minutes and 30 seconds, none of the four officers around George Floyd gave him emergency medical assistance, checked his vitals or even attempted to clear his airway. All Chauvin did, other than press his knee harder into Floyd’s neck, was to say to Floyd that he was using up a lot of oxygen pleading for help.

None of these facts are in dispute, because the jury and the world saw all of the events unfold as we were shown the video of George Floyd’s death by prosecutors yesterday. Mr. Blackwell played this video in its entirety shortly after he began his opening statement, and the jury and the world had a first-hand view of every detail, as it happened.

If you have not watched the video of George Floyd’s death in its entirety, you really need to, and it’s best to watch it within the context of the opening statements (see video above). Be warned that it will be graphic and extremely disturbing, and this is the point — you have to see it with your own eyes to truly understand the horrific event — to see the life leave Mr. Floyd’s body in real time to completely understand.

While Blackwell also detailed all of his various intended witnesses which would scientifically and legally explain how Chauvin’s knee killed Floyd, it’s fair to say that anyone watching the video could easily see how Chauvin killed Floyd. You can believe your eyes, that it’s homicide — it’s murder,” Prosecutor Blackwell said. You can watch the entire opening statement for the defense in the video below:

Defense attorneys had little room to expound on the chilling video after it was played for the jury. Eric Nelson, the lawyer for Mr. Chauvin, said that the case “is clearly more than about 9 minutes and 29 seconds,” and that the evidence "is far greater than nine minutes and 29 seconds." This was really effective in that it helped the prosecution by repeating their 9:29 theme for them. Nelson’s answer for why Chauvin used such a risky move on Floyd’s neck for so long:  “Derek Chauvin did exactly what he had been trained to do over his 19-year career.”

Both sides concluded their arguments fairly quickly, which is slightly unusual considering how much Defense Attorney Nelson emphasized the more than 50,000 items they intend to produce as evidence that they believe will help to exonerate Derek Chauvin. The exact cause of death is the key to the defense’s best strategy — but, Nelson appeared content to emphasize the addiction issues of Mr. Floyd, along with and the rowdiness of the crowd that became threatening to the officers. Unfortunately for Chauvin, the jury was able to see that many of the things the defense offered up in the opening statement had already been disputed in front of their own eyes after watching the video of Floyd’s death.

The first witness for the prosecution was 911 police despatcher Jena Scurry, who deployed police to the Cup Foods shop after George Floyd was reported for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill. Scurry quickly established her intelligence, quick perceptions and commitment to her profession with her testimony. She was also able to watch the arrest unfold during intervals at work from a camera fixed on the side of a building that gave police remote visual access to the scene.

Scurry was able to emphasize several critical points for the prosecution, including the lengthy detainment, and that even a person who was viewing the scene intermittently and remotely, could sense something was wrong with the arrest. Scurry told the courtroom that she thought the "screens had frozen" because of how long Mr Floyd was kept on the ground, and she testified that she became "concerned that something might be wrong."

"My instincts were telling me that something was wrong — something wasn't right," said Scurry, who had a view of the squad car door, through which Floyd was dragged. "It was an extended period of time [and] they hadn't told me if they needed more resources." Ms. Scurry also added: "I [didn’t] know if they had to use force or not; They got something out of the back of the squad and all of them sat on this man."

Perhaps Scurry’s most telling testimony came when audio evidence of a call was played that detailed how she called the sergeant in charge of the officers to report was was happening because she was so concerned. Scurry told also told the sergeant: "I don't want to be a snitch," which shows that reporting the officers was not customary or an easy thing for Scurry to do, but she felt it was important.

The testimony concluded for the day with Donald Williams, a first hand witness to the death of George Floyd. Williams was standing only a few feet away from Chauvin and Floyd, and also happened to be trained as a mixed martial arts fighter. Williams told the court he could see Mr Floyd's life slipping away. (You can watch an edited clip of William’s testimony below and watch the full session here.)

Mr. Williams also drew upon a recent fishing trip he had taken in earlier May last year to describe what he saw. Williams told the jury that Chauvin’s knee continued to further press on Floyd’s neck and "you were seeing Floyd fade away, slowly fade away, and like the fish in the bag, you see the eyes slowly pale out." Williams also testified that he had a decade of experience in private security, and has worked alongside off-duty Minneapolis police.

Mr. Williams described how he yelled at Chauvin that what he was doing to Floyd was a "blood choke." Williams explained that it is well known that kind of choking maneuver can lead to someone falling unconscious — he also said that calling this point out to Derek Chauvin caused the officer to look up directly at him, the only time that happened.

As Williams watched the video of Floyd’s death that had been entered into evidence, he gave the courtroom a play-by-play explanation and showed how Derek Chauvin was shifting his weight on purpose repeatedly to tighten the hold on Floyd's neck. Mr. Williams called this technique a "shimmy,” as the testimony continued to be incredibly informative and riveting.

At some point during Williams' testimony, the live video feed cut out creating another dramatic moment. We later found out that the jury was excused while the judge and counsel discussed the limitations on Mr. Williams’ testimony regarding his expertise as a martial artist. Following that discussion, the jurors were brought back in shortly after 4:30 pm,. and were then dismissed for the day. Court is scheduled to resume around 9:30 am local time this morning with further testimony from Williams. Stay tuned.


Amee Vanderpool writes the SHERO Newsletter and is an attorney, published author, contributor to newspapers and magazines and analyst for BBC radio. She can be reached at avanderpool@gmail.com or follow her on Twitter @girlsreallyrule.

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