Both prosecuting and defense attorneys gave closing arguments on Monday in the murder trial of former Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin. Although the charges Chauvin is facing—second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter—are arguably the most egregious offenses a person can commit, the case broadcasted in hours of witness and surveillance video is simple.
As prosecutor Jerry Blackwell put it in his rebuttal to the defense attorney’s closing arguments, the case is so simple even a 9-year-old girl can understand it, and she did. That girl witnessed Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck before he died in police custody on May 25, 2020 and testified in court for the prosecution. "Get off of him," she had told police before Floyd's death. Blackwell repeated her words in court.
"That's how simple it was. 'Get off of him.' Common sense,” the attorney said.
They were words that prosecutor Steve Schleicher also used repeatedly in closing arguments. "Use your common sense,” he told the jury. “Believe your eyes. What you saw, you saw." In Schleicher’s closing, he laid out the facts of the case as shown in video presented earlier in the trial. The attorney said Floyd complied with officers even though his first encounter with them the day he died was threatening. He was alerted to a police presence when former Minneapolis police officer Thomas Lane used his gun to tap on the window of the SUV Floyd was sitting in.
WARNING: This video contains live footage that may be triggering or inappropriate for some viewers.
"They ask him his name. He gives his name. He spells it. That's not resistance. That's compliance," Schleicher said. "They ask him to get up. He gets up. They ask him to go across the street. He goes across the street.” Floyd complied with each command officers give until they take him to a squad car. That’s what they wanted him to get into,” Schleicher said, showing the jury a photo of the back of the squad car. He asked the jury rhetorically what they thought the back of the car looked like to Floyd. “Like a little cage,” the attorney answered his own question. “He tried to explain himself to the officers that he had anxiety, that he had claustrophobia.
“He explained this over and over. They wanted him to get in the back of this little car. He just wasn't able to bring himself to do it. He wasn't able to bring himself to do it.”
When the encounter ended, Chauvin had kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds despite the Black father telling officers 27 times that he couldn’t breathe. “This wasn’t policing. This was murder,” Schleicher said in his final words to the jury.
Defense attorney Eric Nelson focused mostly on the idea that Chauvin acted as any reasonable officer would. “All of the evidence shows that Mr. Chauvin thought he was following his training,” Nelson said. He went on to list the considerations a reasonable officer takes into account, such as the safety of the person being arrested and whether calling emergency medical services to respond would be quicker than putting the suspect in the squad car and taking him to the hospital. “And then you look at the direct knowledge that a reasonable police officer would have at the precise moment force was used,” Nelson said. “That includes information that they gather from dispatch, their direct observations of the scene, the subjects, and the current surroundings.
“They have to take into consideration whether the suspect was under the influence of a controlled substance. (...) They take into account their experience with the subject at the beginning, the middle, the end.”
Nelson went on to say that it’s not uncommon for suspects to fake medical emergencies to avoid arrest. “If they’re talking it means they’re breathing,” Nelson said. It’s an explanation Nicole Mackenzie, the Minneapolis police medical support coordinator, refuted when she testified in the trial that just because a person is talking doesn’t mean he is breathing effectively. Nelson, however, focused on theories backed by little evidence in the case like the belief that drugs, a heart condition, and even carbon monoxide from the nearby squad car Floyd was held in front of contributed to his death. The attorney attempted to discredit testimony during the trial that the position Chauvin held Floyd in contributed to his death.
"People sleep in the prone position. People suntan in the prone position. People get massages in the prone position," Nelson said. "The prone position in and of itself is not an inherently dangerous act." But add the body weight of multiple police officers, and the defense’s own expert witness testified that it becomes dangerous.
The jury will ultimately decide how reasonable the defense’s argument is.
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