Derek Chauvin’s trial on murder charges will see several significant battles over how essential facts in the case are interpreted, the former Minneapolis police officer’s defense attorney, Eric Nelson, said during Monday’s opening arguments.
Chief among those battles, Nelson told the jury, is the debate over George Floyd’s cause of death. Prosecutors say Chauvin is responsible for killing Floyd, but the defense says that Floyd’s health issues and drug use aggravated a heart condition and that Chauvin should be absolved.
“The evidence will show that Mr. Floyd died of a cardiac arrhythmia that occurred as a result of hypertension, his coronary disease, the ingestion of methamphetamine and fentanyl, and the adrenaline flowing through his body — all of which acted to further compromise an already compromised heart,” Nelson said.
Describing Floyd’s actions on the day he died, Nelson said, “The evidence will show that when confronted by police, Mr. Floyd put drugs in his mouth in an effort to conceal them from police.”
When jurors weigh the evidence and the law and “apply reason and common sense,” Nelson said, “there will only be one just verdict, and that is to find Mr. Chauvin not guilty.”
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Chauvin, 45, faces three criminal charges: second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
The prosecution said earlier Monday that Chauvin failed to uphold his oath and follow police training in his use of force against Floyd, with Special Assistant Attorney General Jerry Blackwell saying that Chauvin “used excessive and unreasonable force upon the body of Mr. George Floyd.”
Blackwell also questioned the proportion of the police response, noting that five armed officers were at the scene to deal with the unarmed Floyd on the day he died in custody. But Chauvin’s defense attorney said that while the incident had begun with a report of a counterfeit $20 bill, it also involved illegal drugs and a physical struggle that began before Chauvin arrived.
“What you will learn is that when an officer responds to what is sometimes a routine and minimal event, it often evolves into a greater and more serious event,” Nelson said.
The defense attorney portrayed the police response from last Memorial Day as escalating even before Chauvin arrived. And while the prosecution displayed an eyewitness’s video footage in court, showing Chauvin holding his knee on Floyd’s neck, Nelson said the jury will also see other footage, including surveillance camera footage from Cup Foods, the store Floyd visited.
Nelson also said witnesses will testify that on the day Floyd died, they believed he was either drunk or on drugs. And he noted that Floyd told police he was not under the influence of any substances.
Nelson said the officers who were taking Floyd into custody saw a crowd that gathered around them as a threat, and he said they believed Floyd continued to struggle even after he was held on the ground.
Describing the intersection of East 38th Street and Chicago Avenue, where the incident took place, as a “high-crime area,” Nelson said the city of Minneapolis has surveillance cameras positioned high above street level.
Even from afar, Nelson told the jurors, “you will be able to see the Minneapolis police squad car rocking back and forth” repeatedly, as officers tried to get Floyd into the vehicle.
“This was not an easy struggle,” Nelson said.
Nelson urged the jurors to focus on applying reason and common sense to the evidence they’re presented with. That evidence is expansive, he said, and is far broader than what they will see in video footage that shows the final 10 minutes of the encounter between Floyd and the police.
“At the end of this case, we’re going to spend a lot of time talking about doubt,” Nelson told the jury.