The defense team for Derek Chauvin began presenting its case Tuesday after two weeks of prosecution witnesses supporting the murder charge against the former Minneapolis police officer. There is, of course, video evidence of the arrest, showing exactly what happened on the evening of May 25. The prosecution spent days humanizing George Floyd, as someone who admittedly struggled with substance abuse, while calling witness after witness to painfully, sometimes emotionally explain the obvious: what was seen on tape. The prosecution’s case to the jury is: Believe your eyes; believe what you’re seeing on the tape showing Chauvin kneeling on Floyd for more than nine minutes before he died. Derek Chauvin’s defense strategy has always been to introduce doubt—not just about what happened on screen, but why it was happening.
The crux of Chauvin’s defense, presented by his lawyer Eric Nelson Tuesday, is that it wasn’t the nine-plus minutes that Chauvin was kneeling on top of Floyd that killed him; it was, in fact, a drug overdose that coupled with health conditions led to Floyd’s death. In addition to introducing the argument that Floyd died from a drug overdose, the defense has argued all along that Chauvin was just doing his job. What could be seen on camera, the defense argues, can be explained and justified by what is occurring off camera—a hostile crowd, an unstable scene, during a chaotic arrest.
The defense’s first day of calling witnesses highlighted Floyd’s previous drug use through a 2019 encounter with police that they argue was very similar to the evening of May 25. During that traffic stop, Floyd said he ingested a number of prescription painkillers as police approached and was ultimately taken to the hospital. The defense called witnesses from the 2019 stop to try to connect it to the night of Floyd’s death, suggesting that something similar occurred. Only a very small section of the body camera video of the 2019 incident was allowed to be shown to the jury because the judge has limited the scope of evidence admitted on Floyd’s past to avoid a time-honored defense tactic of blaming the victim.
The defense also called Barry Brodd as an expert witness to refute days of testimony from the prosecution that described Chauvin’s actions as inconsistent with his training and unjustified given the situation where Floyd was handcuffed and lying prone on the ground. Brodd, a self-defense expert, articulated the rebuttal the defense has been trying to make while cross-examining the prosecution’s witnesses—namely that Chauvin was under duress during the arrest given the crowded scene and acted reasonably. Brodd said that he believed kneeling on Floyd’s neck did not even qualify as a use of force by Chauvin, and Floyd’s death did not necessarily mean that Chauvin used “deadly force.” Brodd later admitted during cross-examination that Chauvin’s actions did, however, qualify as a use of force under the policies of the Minneapolis Police Department.
“It’s easy to sit and judge in an office on an officer’s conduct,” Brodd said. “It’s more of a challenge to put yourself in the officer’s shoes to try to make an evaluation through what they’re feeling, what they’re sensing, the fear they have, and then make a determination.”
The defense is expected to complete its case on Thursday.