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  • Writer's pictureTigger Lunney

Opening Arguments and Eyewitness Testimony Dominate Trial Proceedings in Derek Chauvin trial

Updated: Mar 31, 2021

Attorneys for the prosecution and defense presented opening arguments and began testimony from witnesses as the second stage of the trial of disgraced former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd began today.

As covered here at Move For Justice News, much of the past three weeks have been devoted to the first stage of the trial: jury selection and pre-trial motions. While that stage provided important insights into both the prosecution and defense strategies for framing their cases, the opening arguments were by far the most overt statement of each side’s approach so far.

As presented by attorney for the State Jerry Blackwell, the prosecution’s fundamental focus is that there is absolutely no legitimate way that Chauvin could have believed his actions were safe, reasonable, or in line with actual Minneapolis Police Department training, policy, or values. Blackwell repeatedly stressed 9 minutes, 29 seconds--the length of time Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck. (Not 8:46, as previously reported). Blackwell meticulously laid out the State’s case to the jury, from eyewitness testimony to expert witnesses to MPD leadership who will testify that Chauvin was not following protocol. He also gave the jury the first of what will be many viewings of the video of Floyd’s murder, which left at least a few jurors noticeably shaken.

Defense attorney Eric Nelson, on the other hand, used his opening argument to make it very clear that his intention was to do everything he could to distract the jury from Chauvin’s actual actions. Primarily, Nelson blamed Floyd’s drug use and argued that there was context to Chauvin’s actions that made them legitimate. He repeatedly stressed that there was “more to this” than the 9 minutes and 29 seconds when Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck until he died. He also focused on countering the State’s argument about training, claiming that everything Chauvin did to Floyd was entirely according to MPD regulations.

These two strategies continued to play out as testimony began later in the morning. Under questioning from the State, 911 Dispatcher Jena Scurry testified to her actions on the day, including her calling the MPD sergeant on duty after noticing on video that Floyd appeared to have been restrained on the ground without moving for a long period of time. The second witness, Alysha Oyler, testified to what she saw while filming from the gas station across the street where she worked at the time. In both cases, Nelson’s cross-examination for the defense was largely based on highlighting information the witnesses didn’t have or didn’t remember clearly from their initial statements.

The day concluded with Donald Williams taking the stand. Williams, prominently seen in the body cam footage telling Chauvin and the other police that their restraint of Floyd was unsafe and potentially deadly, testified extensively about his knowledge of various forms of chokeholds and other restraints as a trainer wrestler and MMA fighter, and what he observed in Chauvin’s actions while holding Floyd to the ground. Williams testified to Chauvin using a “blood choke,” which is a hold that restricts bloodflow and oxygen to the brain rather than denying the victim airflow into the lungs. (This is an important distinction to note, as at least one seated juror had indicated during voir dire that she assumed that someone being choked couldn’t speak because they didn’t have any air.) Williams also explained, and pointed out in video, Chauvin repeatedly using a maneuver he called a “shimmy”—a small adjustment which allows the person applying a chokehold to increase the pressure and therefore the severity of the choke. Due to technical issues and time of day, Judge Peter Cahill adjourned before Williams’s testimony on the stand was complete.

An interesting, if unintentional result of the very different approaches of the State and the defense is that in many ways, Nelson’s is far better fuel for the burning need for radical change and reform in both policing and the criminal justice system. The State’s argument is based on the (indisputable) idea that Chauvin acted with individual purpose and malice in violation of the principals that he swore to uphold but also based on the (much more disputable) idea that he’s an outlier among his former colleagues. In other words, Chauvin was “one bad cop,” an exception to the MPD’s lofty principals and policies, rather than just one example of a systemic illness based in countless documented examples of toxic, violent actions against the very people they’ve sworn to protect.

Meanwhile, Nelson’s argument boils down to, “Derek Chauvin didn’t do anything wrong because there’s so much that went on and so much going on and actually everything he did was okay by MPD standards and people were yelling at him which distracted him and George Floyd was on drugs and would have died anyway and did I mention that there was so much going on?” It again illustrates the conflict between the criminal justice system and broader concepts of racial and social justice, as calling out the flawed system of policing that the MPD practices implicitly lets Chauvin off the hook. Of the two sides, it’s Nelson who’s maintaining that Chauvin did nothing wrong by the rules of the system he upholds. Nelson isn’t calling for systemic change—far from it!—but through his approach he’s certainly (unintentionally) more honest about Chauvin’s place in that system.

That is, of course, where any connection between Nelson’s position and those advocating for systemic change ends, full stop. Instead of asking us to not look behind the curtain, Nelson’s asking us to entirely focus on what’s behind the curtain, instead of what’s very much center stage for the world to see: a defendant who at virtually any point in that 9 minutes 29 seconds could have made the right choice, could have stopped hurting someone, could have chosen to not kill someone, but didn’t.

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