Closing arguments in the trial of Derek Chuavin, the former Minneapolis cop accused of murdering George Floyd, ended just before 4 p.m. central time Monday, April 19th.
Minnesota prosecutor Steve Schleicher addressed the jury first, his statements lasting just under two hours; Chauvin’s defense attorney, Eric Nelson, spoke afterwards, his remarks dragging on for nearly three hours (two-and-a-half hours in, the judge was forced to stop Nelson for a lunch break). After Nelson spoke, another prosecutor, Jerry Blackwell, was allowed to offer a rebuttal for the state.
Prior to the statements, the jurors also received final instructions from Judge Peter Cahill as they head into deliberation. Chauvin is facing three charges: second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
After three weeks of testimony from bystanders, medical experts and law enforcement officials, Schleicher argued that that Chauvin killed Floyd when he kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes, in violation of Minneapolis PD use of force policies. Schleicher offered a beat-by-beat recounting of Floyd’s arrest, arguing that he complied with officers every step of the way. Schleicher said Floyd only began to struggle when he told officers that he did not want to get into the cramped squad car because of his anxiety and claustrophobia.
Schleicher also focused on the nine minutes and 29 seconds that Chauvin knelt on Floyd, arguing that Chauvin’s actions deprived Floyd of oxygen, which is what led to his death. The state called numerous medical witnesses to speak to bolster this argument, including the pulmonologist Dr. Martin Tobin and Dr. Bill Smock, a police surgeon in Louisville, Kentucky.
Noting that Floyd had referred to Chauvin throughout the ordeal as “Mr. Officer,” Schleicher said, “George Floyd’s final words on May 25th, 2020 were, ‘Please, I can’t breathe.’ And he said those words to Mr. Officer, he said those words to the defendant. He asked for help with his very last breath, but Mr. Officer did not help, the defendant did not help, he stayed on top of him, continued to push him down, to grind his knees, to twist his hands, to twist his fingers, into the handcuffs that bound him, looking at him, staring down at times the horrified bystanders who had gathered and watched this unfold.”
While Schleicher reiterated testimony from throughout the trial (the prosecution called 38 witnesses, while the defense called seven), he ended his closing argument by telling the jurors, “This case is exactly what you thought when you saw it first, when you saw that video. It is exactly that. You can believe your eyes.” He added, “This wasn’t policing, this was murder.”
Nelson then followed with a closing argument that Chauvin’s actions were reasonable throughout the encounter, that he acted exactly as he had been trained to do and that he, as a police officer, had a better perception of the situation than the bystanders urging him to take his knee off Floyd’s neck. (Chuavin invoked his Fifth Amendment right and declined to testify during the trial.)
“All of the evidence shows that Mr. Chauvin thought he was following his training,” Nelson said. “He was, in fact, following his training. He was following Minneapolis police department policies. He was trained this way. It all demonstrates a lack of intent. There is absolutely no evidence that Officer Chauvin intentionally, purposefully applied an unlawful force.”
Nelson also attempted to raise reasonable doubt on the prosecution’s claims that Chauvin’s actions alone led to Floyd’s death. He reiterated the possibility of other contributing factors, such as a possible drug overdose and other underlying medical issues. (Witnesses like Dr. Jonathan Rich, however, argued that there was no evidence to support claims of a drug overdose, or that a problem with Floyd’s heart caused his death.)
Additionally, Nelson zeroed in on Floyd’s official autopsy report, in which the medical examiner did not find any evidence of asphyxia. As noted in The New York Times, however, the examiner did not watch the video of Floyd’s death before performing the autopsy so as not to bias himself, which forensic pathologists have said is medically relevant as evidence of asphyxia often doesn’t show up during autopsies.