Today marks day 1 of the trial of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter in the death of 46-year-old George Floyd. Chauvin has plead not guilty to all charges.
I want to preface with some opinion statements, before I break down what happened in court today. As the trial begins there’s ONE thing we have to remember, and it’s irrefutable: George Floyd is dead because of Derek Chauvin. There is no way around that fact. Many things will be presented at trial. Floyd’s criminal record, his drug addiction, his criminal actions that very morning. They’ll present his medical history, showing he supposedly had a heart condition, and had Fentanyl in his system that day. All of those things may be true. It DOES NOT change the fact that had this officer not sat on Floyd’s neck with his knee for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, Floyd would have not died in that moment on that day. He said the words “I can’t breathe” 27 times. He was not armed. He was handcuffed and subdued. Nothing he did before or during those 9 minutes and 29 seconds warranted his murder. In all the legal maneuverings, we must remember that at the end of the day, George Floyd was a human being. Flawed? Yes. We all are. A criminal? Yes. Nothing on his rap sheet was worthy of the death penalty. Whatever his crimes, he deserved to make it to court. Officers are supposed to use lethal force as a last resort. They are trained to protect and serve. They are supposed to apprehend criminals without harm whenever possible. They are not the judge or jury. It is not their job to decide what crimes were or were not committed. They are not supposed to have the fate of anyone they arrest in their hands unless absolutely necessary. Excessive force is always supposed to be used as a last resort.
And finally…one of the most important things to remember throughout the entirety of this case. GEORGE FLOYD IS NOT ON TRIAL. Derek Chauvin is.
For the purposes of clarification, I first want to define a few key terms you will hear throughout the trial, starting with the charges against Chauvin.
- SECOND-DEGREE MURDER is defined as an intentional murder that lacks premeditation, is intended to cause bodily harm, and demonstrates indifference for human life. (definition can differ slightly between jurisdictions.) This means that the accused did intend to commit the crime, but did not plan it ahead of time.
- THIRD-DEGREE MURDER is defined as the unintentional act of murder, while committing a dangerous act. Only 3 states have this charge available: Minnesota, Florida, and Pennsylvania. The argument can be made that this is equivalent to manslaughter. These 3 states maintain that the difference between third-degree murder and manslaughter is defined by the perpetrator’s state of mind at the time. To convict someone of third-degree murder, you must show that they acted with a wanton disregard for human life.
- SECOND-DEGREE MANSLAUGHTER is defined as an unintentional act of murder, in which a person commits a reckless act, that they are aware they are committing, while consciously disregarding the welfare of others.
In the state of Minnesota, the difference between third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter is the state of mind of the accused. Third-degree murder is committing an eminently dangerous act with zero regard for human life. Second-degree manslaughter is consciously creating a situation of unreasonable risk, knowing they could cause death or bodily harm to others.
Another term you will hear throughout the trial is CARDIAC ARREST. Given that the prosecution and defense will use this term in different contexts, it’s important to know the medical definition and what all it encompasses. Cardiac arrest is the abrupt loss of heart function, breathing, and consciousness. This is different from a heart attack, which is when blood flow to part of the heart is blocked. Cardiac arrest is literally lack of a heartbeat. And it can be caused by any number of things.
And finally, something else you’ll come to know well is the term EXCESSIVE FORCE. Although there are many different contexts and scenarios in which this would apply, the most basic definition is this: Use of excessive force is when an official legally entitled to use force exceeds the minimum amount of force necessary to defuse a situation, protect themselves, or protect others. This means, you should use the minimum amount of force needed to obtain your objective. For instance, let’s say you have a dog that always pees in the house. There are several steps you could take, including telling him “no,” swatting him or rubbing his nose in it, crating him, or even giving him away. If you are trying to figure out where to start, you aren’t going to start with just giving him away. That’s an overblown reaction to something that can be handled more simply. That’s excessive force.
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s dig into day 1 of the trial. The state kicked things off with several witnesses that testified to their firsthand knowledge of the events of May 25th, 2020. It began by playing the bystander video that has been seen worldwide. Prosecutor Jerry Blackwell left the jurors with an extremely powerful message in the opening statement: “You can believe your eyes, that it’s homicide.” The state did an excellent job with it’s opening, acknowledging that George Floyd struggled with an opioid addiction, but making it extremely clear that the evidence will show that this played no part in his death.
Defense attorney Eric Nelson started off by telling the jury that this case was going to require them to use “reason” and “common sense.” He also downplayed the significance of the video, stating “there is no political or social cause in this courtroom, but the evidence is far greater than nine minutes 29 seconds.” The defense argument is going to be twofold: 1, that the crowd at the scene was so unruly that they distracted the officers from doing their job, and 2, that Floyd died because of a drug overdose. With this strategy, the defense is trying to put the jurors in the mindset of the officers, rather than the victim.
The first witness was 911 dispatcher Jena Scurry. Scurry took the call and directed officers to Cup Foods in response to the call about the counterfeit bill. Her testimony was very powerful, in that she had to call the police ON the police. She testified that she became concerned watching the video feed as Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck. She even went as far to say that at first, she thought the feed was frozen because of how long it went on. She ultimately called the sargeant in charge of the officers to report what was happening. When asked, she also stated that this was the first time she ever had to do that. Her testimony was important to establish the fact that this was an unusual event, and that what she saw as so bad, she called for other police to intervene.
Next to take the stand was Alisha Oyler, a cashier working at a gas station across the street from Cup Foods. She took several videos of the incident. She testified that she did not see Floyd resisting arrest. When asked why she began recording, she said “Because I always see the police, they’re always messing with people. And it’s wrong and it’s not right.” Her testimony was not extremely credible, but the state needed to put her on the stand to introduce and go over her video footage of the events.
The final witness was Donald Williams, an MMA fighter who was standing just a few feet away from the situation. He testified to the different types of chokeholds, based on his knowledge and experience of the procedure. He described the move used to restrain Floyd as a “blood choke.” When asked his thoughts when he came up on the scene, he stated “I believe I witnessed a murder.” He also discussed the position of Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck, calling it a “shimmy.” He described the maneuver being intended to put more pressure on the neck, noting that “you can see his foot, his toe is pointing down, and that’s the pressure, to push down more, between his knee, George’s head, and the concrete, to cut off circulation.”
MY TAKE: After 1 day of testimony, the state is killing it. Usually the burden of proof presents a harder challenge, but this case is unique in that we have actual video footage of what transpired. The defense also has an extremely fine line to tread. Nelson must ask his questions in a way that don’t downplay the trauma the witnesses are facing, he has to portray Chauvin as a competent officer and not a monster, all while trying to maintain and display his own humanity. I don’t envy his task.
Today’s testimony was all extremely compelling and emotionally jarring. Jena Scurry was important in laying the groundwork of the uniqueness of the situation. She was so disturbed by what was unfolding, that she was compelled to call someone higher up to assess the situation. It’s also important to note that she reported in her call that Chauvin had not called in the use of force. This is something they are required to do, and he did not do it. The other witnesses spoke to the trauma, outrage, desperation, and tragedy of what happened, as well as the utterly casual demeanor of Chauvin throughout the events.
My personal, educated opinion of this case is that Chauvin is guilty of second-degree murder. While I agree he didn’t premeditate it, it is startlingly clear that he had a total indifference for Floyd’s life, and may have even intended to cause death in that moment.
Law enforcement members will argue that a Chauvin conviction will be a detriment to their ability to do their jobs. That being held accountable for deadly force will prevent them from keeping society safe. These arguments are a deflection and should not sway anyone from convicting this man. In my opinion, all the “good” officers out there SHOULD want this man behind bars. For all the people making the “there’s always bad apples” justification, wouldn’t you want the bad apples out of the basket? I would hope so.
Time will tell how this will all play out. I fear that if Chauvin is not held accountable for his actions, we are in for a reckoning like no other. It’s time to tell police officers that they themselves are not above the law.