Proverbial shots were fired by the prosecution in its opening argument as Jerry Blackwell told the jury, “You can believe your eyes that it’s homicide. It’s murder. You can believe your eyes.” This trial, in essence, will be the second trial in recent years in which the victim of police violence declared they could not breathe. Eric Garner in 2014 complained of not being able to breathe as New York police officers took his life after he was confronted over selling loose cigarettes.
The official name for the case docket is the State of Minnesota vs. Derek Chauvin but it feels more like
the people versus Chauvin and the system of policing. On the first day of the trial for the murder of George Floyd, the defense and the prosecution attempted to remind the jury that the trial is not political or a referendum on policing. However, they likely will have difficulty convincing those outside the courtroom.
Many watching the trial see it as political and a referendum on police and police procedures, including Floyd family members and their attorney Ben Crump. “Today starts a landmark trial that will be a referendum on how far America has come in its quest for equality and justice for all,” Crump said at a press conference in front of the Hennepin County Government Center as armed National Guard members stood near.
“Philando Castile, George, they were all killed by officers who were sworn to protect us. We will not allow Chauvin and his crew to be prosecutor and executioner,” Philonise Floyd said.
Crump also reminded people that, “everything you hear today will attempt to assassinate George Floyd’s character, but remember this is the trial of Derek Chauvin, not George Floyd!”
Almost on cue, the defense painted Floyd as a big, bad Black man in its opening statement. “You will see that three Minneapolis officers cannot overcome the strength of Floyd,” defense attorney Eric Nelson said. Yet, at the same time, the defense also posited that Floyd’s faltering health helped cause his death.
Oddly, in his opening argument, Nelson denied that Chauvin put his knee on Floyd’s neck saying rather that he was leaning on Floyd’s shoulder.
Also of note, during the opening statement, the prosecution showed a photo of the bystanders who videotaped Floyd’s last moments —shocked and outraged faces of community members who forcefully cried out for the police to release Floyd and check his pulse. Blackwell referred to the onlookers as a “veritable bouquet of humanity.”
Yet, the defense painted a different picture of the bystanders, describing them as an angry, threatening mob. “As the crowd grew in size, seemingly so too did their anger,” Nelson said. “There are people behind them and across the street. There are cars stopping, people yelling. There is a growing crowd and what officers perceived to be a threat.”
“They are called names,” Nelson continued. “They’re screaming at them—causing the officers to divert their attention from the care of Mr. Floyd to the threat that was growing in front of them.”
Three witnesses were called by the prosecution on opening day, 911 dispatcher Jena Lee Scurry, Speedway employee Alisha Oiler, and Donald Williams. While Oiler appeared overwhelmed by the experience and needed prodding by the prosecution to recall her testimony, Williams and Scurry both offered compelling accounts. They spoke of having a strong sense that something was wrong with the scene they witnessed.
“My instincts were telling me something wasn’t right,” Scurry said on the witness stand, referring to the video footage she witnessed as a 911 operator. At one point, she mentioned that she thought the video may have been frozen due to how long the officers were on the ground with Floyd. It came out in court that the actual length of time Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck was longer than originally reported: 9 minutes and 29 seconds.
“If this was a use of force, I wanted to alert a sergeant,” Scurry said. She said she had not made a call like this before but reported the incident to the sergeant in charge.
The defense countered that Scurry is not a trained officer, so she likely didn’t know what she was talking about. But Scurry was effective in how she spoke of her “gut” and “instincts.” This was a sentiment echoed by Williams, the last witness of the day.
Williams was a former high school and college wrestler and trainer mixed martial arts fighter. He spoke extensively about his experiences as a wrestler and his knowledge of “chokeholds” and “blood chokes” that restrict blood circulation to the brain. Williams lives near 38th Street and Chicago Avenue and was on his way to Cup Foods when he noticed the scene with Floyd and the police officers. He never made it into the store.
Williams stated that something about the “energy” alarmed and stopped him. He described how he became one of the most vocal witnesses on the scene, yelling at the officers to release Floyd. He provided a vivid account of Floyd’s last moments and how he “faded away” before his eyes. His testimony will continue, along with cross-examination from the defense, on the second day of the trial.
Paige Elliott contributed to this story.