Derek Chauvin “had to know” he was squeezing the life out of George Floyd as the black man cried over and over that he could not breathe and finally fell silent, a prosecutor told the jury during closing arguments at the police officer’s murder trial.
“Use your common sense. Believe your eyes. What you saw, you saw,” Steve Schleicher said, referring to the video of Mr Floyd pinned to the pavement with Chauvin’s knee on or close to his neck last May for up to nine minutes, 29 seconds, as bystanders yelled at the white officer to get off.
Chauvin lawyer Eric Nelson countered by arguing that Chauvin did what any “reasonable” police officer would have done after finding himself in a “dynamic” and “fluid” situation involving a large man struggling with three police officers.
As Mr Nelson began speaking, Chauvin removed his Covid-19 mask in front of the jury for one of very few times during the trial.
The duelling arguments got under way with Minneapolis on edge after Mr Floyd’s death last spring set off protests in the city and across the US that at times turned violent.
The defence contends not only that Chauvin acted reasonably but that 46-year-old Mr Floyd died of heart disease and illegal drug use, not Chauvin’s actions.
Prosecutor Jerry Blackwell had the final word, offering the state’s rebuttal argument. The prosecutor, who is black, said questions about the use of force and cause of death are “so simple that a child can understand it”.
“In fact, a child did understand it, when the nine-year-old girl said, ‘Get off of him’,” Mr Blackwell said, referring to a young witness who objected to what she saw. “That’s how simple it was. ‘Get off of him’. Common sense.”
Under the law, police are given certain latitude to use force and their actions are supposed to be judged according to what a “reasonable officer” in the same situation would have done — a point the defence stressed repeatedly.
Mr Nelson noted that officers who first went to the shop where Mr Floyd allegedly tried to pass a counterfeit 20 dollar note were already struggling with Mr Floyd when Chauvin arrived as back-up. The lawyer also noted that the first two officers on the scene were rookies and that police had been told Mr Floyd might be on drugs.
“A reasonable police officer understands the intensity of the struggle,” Mr Nelson said, saying Chauvin’s body-worn camera and his police badge were knocked off his chest.
During prosecution arguments, Mr Schleicher replayed portions of the bystander video and other footage as he dismissed certain defence theories about Mr Floyd’s death as “nonsense”, saying Chauvin killed Mr Floyd by constricting his breathing.
Mr Schleicher rejected the drug overdose argument, as well as the contention that police were distracted by hostile onlookers, that Mr Floyd had “superhuman” strength from a state of agitation known as “excited delirium”, and that he suffered possible carbon monoxide poisoning from exhaust fumes.
The prosecutor sarcastically referred to the idea that it was heart disease that killed Mr Floyd as an “amazing coincidence”.
“Is that common sense or is that nonsense?” Mr Schleicher asked the racially diverse jury.
But Mr Nelson said the prosecution brought in experts to give evidence that Mr Floyd died because of asphyxia, or lack of oxygen, while the person who performed the post-mortem, the county medical examiner, reached a different finding.
Hennepin County medical examiner Dr Andrew Baker, who ruled the death a homicide, said Mr Floyd’s heart gave out because of the way police held him down. He listed Mr Floyd’s drug use and underlying health problems as contributing factors.
Mr Nelson also showed the jury pictures of pills found in Mr Floyd’s car and remnants discovered in the patrol car. Fentanyl and methamphetamine were found in Mr Floyd’s system.
Earlier, Mr Schleicher described how Chauvin ignored Mr Floyd’s cries and continued to kneel on him well after he stopped breathing and had no pulse.
Chauvin was “on top of him for nine minutes and 29 seconds and he had to know”, Mr Schleicher said.
He said Chauvin “heard him, but he just didn’t listen”.
The prosecutor further argued that Mr Floyd was “not a threat to anyone” and was not trying to escape when he struggled with officers. Instead, Mr Schleicher said, he was terrified of being put into the tiny back seat of the police car.
He said a reasonable officer with Chauvin’s training and experience — he was a 19-year Minneapolis police veteran — should have sized up the situation accurately.
Chauvin, wearing a light grey suit with a blue shirt and blue tie, showed little expression as he watched himself and the other officers pinning Mr Floyd to the ground on bodycam video played by his lawyer.
Mr Schleicher also noted that Chauvin was required to use his training to provide medical care to Mr Floyd but ignored bystanders, rebuffed help from an off-duty paramedic and rejected a suggestion from another officer to roll Mr Floyd on to his side.
“He could have listened to the bystanders. He could have listened to fellow officers. He could have listened to his own training. He knew better. He just didn’t do better,” said Mr Schleicher, adding that even a nine-year-old bystander knew it was dangerous.
“Conscious indifference. Indifference. Do you want to know what indifference is and sounds like?” Mr Schleicher asked before playing a video of Chauvin replying “Uh-huh” several times as Mr Floyd cried out.
The prosecution took about an hour and 45 minutes to make its case, with Mr Schleicher saying at the conclusion: “This wasn’t policing. This was murder.”
Mr Nelson, in his closing argument, played portions of bystander video that showed the increasingly agitated onlookers shouting at Chauvin to get off Mr Floyd’s neck. He said officers may have determined it was not safe to render medical aid to Mr Floyd in that environment.
Chauvin, 45, is charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. All three charges require the jury to conclude that Chauvin’s actions were a “substantial causal factor” in Mr Floyd’s death and that his use of force was unreasonable.
Second-degree intentional murder carries up to 40 years in prison, third-degree murder 25 years, and second-degree manslaughter 10 years.