Accused murderer of George Floyd goes on trial
Jurors heard competing accounts this week of why George Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis police, as the trial began of Derek Chauvin, the former officer who stands accused of murdering Floyd in a racially charged death that triggered massive demonstrations and a national reckoning over systemic racism. Prosecutors replayed the infamous cellphone video that showed Chauvin impassively kneeling on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, as the Black 46-year-old—arrested for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes—pleaded, “I can’t breathe,” and distraught onlookers begged Chauvin to stop. The cause of death was clear, prosecutor Jerry Blackwell told jurors: Chauvin choked the life out of him. “You can believe your eyes,” he said. “It’s homicide, it’s a murder.” Chauvin’s defense attorney, Eric Nelson, told jurors not to rely on the video, saying it fails to reveal a more complicated reality. He said Floyd, who had fentanyl and methamphetamine in his system, died from a mix of intoxication, heart disease, and hypertension, aggravated by adrenaline from the struggle. “The evidence is far greater than 9 minutes and 29 seconds,” said Nelson.
Prosecutors called several witnesses to the stand, including Darnella Frazier, who filmed the viral video. Frazier, 18, wept as she recalled Floyd “begging for his life” and the “cold look” on Chauvin’s face. She spoke of wrestling with guilt for not doing more to save Floyd—who, she said, could have been her father or brother. “We all knew it wasn’t right,” she said. A city firefighter tearfully recounted offering medical assistance to Floyd and being rebuffed by one of Chauvin’s three partners. “I was desperate to help,” she said. “There was a man being killed.”
Security was tight for one of the most closely watched trials in decades, with the Minneapolis courthouse ringed by metal fencing, concrete barriers, and National Guard troops. Ben Crump, a lawyer for Floyd’s family, cast the trial as a test of whether police who wrongfully kill Black men in America can be held accountable. “The whole world is watching,” Crump said.
What the editorials said
“After the speeches, the hashtags, the marches,” this trial will judge one man’s guilt or innocence, said the New York Daily News. The facts seem clear: Despite Floyd’s drug intake and his health issues, the “autopsies leave no doubt” that Chauvin’s depraved actions asphyxiated George Floyd. “We pray he pays a steep price.”
The trial is “another test of just how much Black lives matter in this country,” said The Baltimore Sun. Time and again, police officers who’ve killed African-Americans have walked away despite “damning evidence.” Think of Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner. “All died at the hands of police. No one was held accountable in court.” We can only hope this time the jury will send a “loud and clear” message that police who use excessive force “will face the consequences.”
What the columnists said
What’s on trial here is a belief system that “started long before Floyd was murdered,” said LZ Granderson in the Los Angeles Times. For centuries, Black America has watched police and our justice system “use every tool imaginable to try to prove that our lives do not matter.” Compare how Floyd was treated over a $20 bill to how police treated the white insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6. That’s why even with Chauvin’s brutality caught on video, “many of us are worried that won’t be enough.”
Those who expect a murder conviction should be “forewarned,” said retired FBI agent James Gagliano in the New York Post. Chauvin’s actions were “repugnant and, yes, criminal.” But Floyd’s drug use and heart condition—which the county medical examiner said may have contributed to his death—complicate matters, and proving that Chauvin intended to kill Floyd may be impossible. He’s more likely to be convicted of manslaughter—recklessly endangering Floyd’s life.
Let’s remember that “Chauvin is the man on trial, not Floyd,” said Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post. His casual kneeling on Floyd’s neck “looks like a performance” —a demonstration of the police’s domination over the African-American neighborhood they were assigned to protect. That is “the essence of the problem with police violence in this country.”
The video is damning, said former prosecutor Elie Honig in CNN.com, but “anybody who tells you they know for sure what any jury will do has never tried a case.” Juries are made up of human beings, “and we humans are nothing if not mercurial.” The uncertainty doubles in any case involving the police—“multiply it again when the case involves race.” Now we’ll see if the jury can find its way through this thicket to justice. “The stakes—for the entire country—are enormous.”
A ruling by Judge Peter Cahill means jurors will see a “dramatic” video of a previous Floyd arrest that could tip them “toward acquittal,” said Paul Butler in The Washington Post. In the 2019 incident, a resisting Floyd was pulled from his car, handcuffed, and hospitalized, after being treated by paramedics who said “his blood pressure was so high that he was at risk for a stroke or heart attack.” Initially, Cahill refused to allow the video into evidence, saying it could bias jurors against Floyd, but he recently reversed himself. Chauvin attorney Eric Nelson “has yet to say whether his client will testify,” said Andrés Martínez and Tim Arango in The New York Times. But legal experts say “it may be the best opportunity to dampen the impact of the video.” Jurors “need to hear from Chauvin and begin to empathize with him,” said Craig Futterman, a professor at the University of Chicago law school. That “will be much more difficult without speaking to the jury.”
Cover illustration by Howard McWilliam.
Cover photos from Getty, AP, Getty ■