The prosecution closed the first week of the Derek Chauvin murder trial with more impactful testimony. While the week began with dramatic, and at times, heart-piercing testimony from bystanders who witnessed George Floyd’s last moments alive, the testimonies that concluded the week were less dramatic but equally, if not more, detrimental to the defense.
Minneapolis police Sgt. Jon Edwards, who helped secure the crime scene following Floyd’s fatal arrest on May 25, 2020, took the stand first and recounted details of that night. Compared to many of the other testimonies throughout the week, his was uneventful. But it did serve as a sharp contrast to Minneapolis Police Lt. Richard Zimmerman, a 35-year veteran of the force, who took the stand next.
Zimmerman, the highest-ranking officer on the Minneapolis police force, more than delivered for the prosecution. He, like Minneapolis police Sgt. David Ploeger the day before, condemned Chauvin’s use of force.
Matthew Frank, assistant Minnesota attorney general, laid the groundwork by asking Lt. Zimmerman about his 12-year experience as head of the homicide division and his knowledge and training about the use of force. He then asked, based on his years of experience, if he’d call Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck “a use of force.” Zimmerman said, “yes.”
“What is your view of that use of force during that time period?” Frank asked. Zimmerman replied, “It was totally unnecessary.”
Frank asked him to expound, and Zimmerman said: “Well, first of all, pulling him down to the ground face down and putting your knee on a neck for that amount of time is just uncalled for. I saw no reason why the officers felt they were in danger—if that’s what they felt. And that’s what they’d have to feel to use that type of force.”
“So in your opinion, should that restraint have stopped when he was handcuffed and thrown on the ground?” asked Frank. “Absolutely,” answered Zimmerman.
Frank’s answers ran counter to the defense’s constant refrain that Floyd and the “angry” bystanders posed a threat to the officers.
Zimmerman said that since 1985, the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) has taught that once a person is handcuffed, if they are in the prone position (on their stomach) it is difficult for them to breathe and so they should be turned over immediately. “You need to turn them on their side or have them sit up,” he said.
Zimmerman also said police are not trained to kneel on a person’s neck and called it a “top-tier, deadly” use of force that shouldn’t occur. “If your knee is on a person’s neck, that could kill him,” he said.
Chauvin is charged with third-degree murder, second-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter for the killing of Floyd.
While Zimmerman acknowledged that someone can still be combative while handcuffed, he said, “The threat level is just not there. The person is handcuffed, how can they really hurt you?” He also said from the moment an officer places someone in handcuffs, their “wellbeing is your responsibility.”
According to pool reports from journalists in the courtroom, most of the jurors were taking notes during Zimmerman’s comments about use of force.
Defense attorney Eric Nelson’s cross-examination sought to undercut Zimmerman’s experience of current day-to-day patrolling and training. “It’s fair to say that since 1993, you’ve not, other than for ceremonial reasons, you’ve not worn a uniform on a daily basis?” asked Nelson. “You’re not out patrolling streets, making arrests, things of that nature?”
Zimmerman answered “yes” to most of Nelson’s questions and did not appear combative or bothered.
During redirect, the prosecution brought out that even though Zimmerman is a high-ranking officer, he has to complete use of force training each year like all officers, which countered the defense’s line of questioning.
Zimmerman’s blunt critique of Chauvin shouldn’t come as a total surprise, as he was one of 14 officers who penned a letter last summer condemning Chauvin’s killing of Floyd. The defense made no mention of this letter during cross-examination.
More damning testimony from the MPD is expected, as it’s been reported that the prosecution will call on Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo to testify against Chauvin in the coming weeks.
David Henderson, a civil rights attorney, and former prosecutor appeared on MSNBC’s “All In With Chris Hayes” and said that in his years of prosecuting, he’s never seen multiple police officers cross the infamous “blue line” and testify against one of their own.
“No, I’ve never seen something like this before,” said Henderson, “and I think George Floyd is going to continue to transform the world in more ways than one. I think there is going to be a clear line drawn between how these cases are tried prior to George Floyd’s death … and after.”
But Henderson was also wary of the “bad apple” positioning by police. “At the same time,” he continued, “this is met with a degree of skepticism from me because I don’t want the police to exchange one bad habit for another. I am thankful that they’re being honest with the fact that what Derek Chauvin did was wrong. At the same time, police problems are systemic and not base on individual behavior. ”
Though he disclosed that he feels Chauvin should have been charged with a higher level of offense and should go to prison for a long time, when asked, he laid out how the defense can recover from a bruising week of testimony by putting the Minneapolis Police Department on trial.
“They didn’t pay $27 million to the Floyd family to be nice,” said Henderson. “They paid it because they were sued, and in the lawsuit, it alleged that Derek Chauvin was acting pursuant to their policies, which included being violent specifically towards Black men like George Floyd.”
He added that the defense’s strategy would have to include creating doubt about the medical causation of death and include testimony from Chauvin. From what he’s seen thus far, Henderson said he didn’t think the defense was up to the challenge.
Judge Cahill adjourned the court early on Friday, as the trial is reportedly ahead of schedule in its first week. It was a welcomed respite from a week of powerful and harrowing witness testimonies and video after video of Floyd’s brutal and torturous death.
Paige Elliott is the digital editor at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.