Attorneys began laying out their cases Monday in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is charged in the death of George Floyd last spring – an incident that ignited protests worldwide against police brutality and touched off a racial reckoning in the U.S.
Any question about how and when the graphic bystander video of Floyd’s death would be used in the trial was answered just minutes into Monday’s opening statements. The prosecution played the whole video for the jury – all 9 minutes and 29 seconds of it, complete with audio of Floyd gasping “I can’t breathe” 27 times and witnesses urging Chauvin to get off Floyd’s neck.
Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. If convicted of the most serious charge, he could face 10½ years to 15 years in prison under sentencing guidelines for first-time offenders.
- Ahead of opening statements, the prosecution argued that the defense should not be allowed to characterize Floyd’s state of mind and the defense agreed it would be off-limits.
- The judge noted that he would be very strict about prohibiting arguments or inferences during opening statements by each side. The lawyers can say what “appeared” to be happening during Floyd’s arrest, but not what “should have” happened.
- Hundreds gathered in rallies and vigils Sunday to honor Floyd’s life and draw attention to the court proceedings. Monday morning, members of Floyd’s family and lawyers linked arms and knelt down in front of the courthouse in silence.
- A limited number of people are allowed in the courtroom due to COVID-19, including one member of each of Floyd and Chauvin’s families.
Prosecution plays bystander video, stresses ‘9 minutes 29 seconds’
Prosecutor Jerry Blackwell gave the opening statement for the prosecution Monday morning, March 29, 2021, informing jurors of what evidence they’ll be seeing and which witnesses they’ll be hearing from.
Blackwell said Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, contrary to the widely reported estimate of 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Blackwell provided jurors with a visual timeline of that period, pointing to when bystanders attempted to intervene and when Floyd spoke his last words.
“You will see that he does not let up and he does not get up, even when Mr. Floyd doesn’t have a pulse,” Blackwell said. “You can believe your eyes. It’s homicide. It’s murder.”
As the video played, Chauvin sat in the courtroom, taking notes on a yellow legal pad and occasionally looking up at the screen.
George Floyd’s cousins, brothers, and nephew, along with lawyers representing the family and the Rev. Al Sharpton, gathered in front of the courthouse Monday morning and spoke to the public before taking a knee for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time Chauvin was seen kneeling on Floyd’s neck. Subsequent court documents, however, put the time at more than 9 minutes.
“Today starts a landmark trial that will be a referendum on how far America has come in its quest for equality and justice for all. It will be prima facie evidence,” civil rights attorney Ben Crump said. “The whole world is watching.”
A news helicopter clattered overhead as Crump cited the Declaration of Independence and Floyd’s supporters demanded he receives the same justice as a white person would.
“This murder case is not hard when you watch that torture video of George Floyd. And we have to call it what it is: it was torture,” Crump said. “We’re not asking for anything extraordinary. We’re asking for equal justice under the law.”
George Floyd’s brother, Rodney, warned Americans watching the trial that attorneys for the defense were expected to cast doubt on Floyd’s character. “Please, don’t be entertained by the lies they’re going to throw out on him. The truth is … he was murdered in the streets,” Rodney Floyd said.
On Sunday, the Rev. Billy G. Russell held an evening vigil at his church with members of Floyd’s family, Sharpton and Crump. When he spoke Sunday, Sharpton pointed out that many cases never resulted in criminal charges against the officers involved, citing past incidents including the beating of Rodney King and the killing of Eric Garner. He said that Monday marks an opportunity for the country to hold police accountable.
“The criminal justice system is on trial,” Sharpton said. “Chauvin is in the courtroom, but America is on trial.”