The Slatest

Derek Chauvin’s Defense Argues He Was Just Doing What He Was Trained to Do

A courtroom sketch of Minneapolis Police Lt. Johnny Mercil answering questions during the Chauvin trial.
A courtroom sketch of Minneapolis Police Lt. Johnny Mercil answering questions on the seventh day of the Chauvin trial in Minneapolis, Minnesota. REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg

Day seven of the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin centered around the fundamental question of whether Chauvin followed police procedure and training during the May 25th arrest of George Floyd, where Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes. Chauvin’s defense team has made the case that Chauvin was just doing what he was trained to do and that the chaotic situation on the ground during the arrest justified Chauvin’s decision-making that led to Floyd’s death. Prosecutors called several officers Tuesday specializing in police training and use of force to counter the defense’s central argument that Chauvin was doing what he was taught to do.

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Lt. Johnny Mercil, who heads the Minneapolis police department’s training on use of force and defensive tactics, and was personally involved in training Chauvin on how to subdue suspects, testified that the neck restraint Chauvin deployed was not proper because Floyd had already been handcuffed and subdued. Officers are trained that applying any pressure to the side of the neck, Mercil testified, was only allowable as a last resort, when all other tactics had failed to bring a suspect under control. Mercil said a “knee-on-the-neck is something that might happen” incidentally in moments where an officer is grappling with a suspect, but should be momentary, which was not the case for Chauvin.

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Chauvin’s defense team tried to cast doubt on whether the scene of the arrest was actually subdued, whether Chauvin had, in fact, knowingly and continually applied pressure directly to Floyd’s neck, and whether Chauvin should have known Floyd was in respiratory distress, as the prosecution claims, and stopped to provide medical assistance. The defense countered Mercil’s testimony showing a number of pictures taken during different points of the arrest that show Chauvin’s knee at different locations near Floyd’s head, some appearing to be closer to his shoulder. The defense argument being crafted is that Chauvin was in a dynamic situation, which included many hostile bystanders, making the situation unstable, and prompting Chauvin to restrain Floyd for longer than he normally would have. The scene of the arrest, the defense argued, also made it more difficult for Chauvin to make a medical assessment and administer life-saving assistance to Floyd.

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This was the defense’s line of questioning for the police department’s medical services coordinator Nicole Mackenzie, who testified to Chauvin’s medical training and about the signs of respiratory distress. The defense has focused on the fact that Floyd was speaking, saying repeatedly that he couldn’t breathe, as a justification for Chauvin believing he wasn’t in danger of suffocation. Under questioning, Mackenzie agreed with the defense that Chauvin could have misinterpreted gasping for air with breathing.

The defense also pressed Mackenzie on whether the situation on the ground during the arrest could have justifiably prevented Chauvin from administering CPR. “If you’re trying to be heads down on a patient that you need to render aid to, it’s very difficult to focus on the patient while there’s other things around you,” Mackenzie said under questioning. “If you don’t feel safe around you, if you don’t have enough resources, it’s very difficult to focus on the one in front of you.”

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