Jurisprudence

Is Derek Chauvin’s Defense Flailing?

A Minneapolis reporter breaks down the debunked arguments being used on the police officer’s behalf.

Hands hold up a painting of George Floyd in front of a building and next to a Black Lives Matter flag.
Demonstrators march on Friday in Minneapolis. Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

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The trial of Derek Chauvin, the police officer accused of killing George Floyd last year by kneeling on his neck for almost nine minutes, starts back up this week. The prosecution has put a historic number of resources behind this trial to try to get a conviction, with the Minnesota attorney general being joined by civil rights lawyers and experts who are working for free to bolster the case against Chauvin. The team has called eyewitnesses to George Floyd’s death, experts on the use of force by police, and doctors, and it will likely be resting its case this week after presenting “spark of life” evidence, including photos of George Floyd’s childhood and testimony from Floyd’s brother. Then, the defense is likely to try to chip away at the prosecution through whatever means it can. On Monday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Jon Collins, a reporter for Minnesota Public Radio, about how this high-stakes trial may turn out, and whether the effort to reform policing will get similar attention. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Jon Collins: My impression is that the prosecution is trying to inoculate the jurors against what the defense’s main arguments are going to be, which is that George Floyd died from a medical condition, from a heart condition, or from the drugs that were in his system. A lot of the testimony has revolved around that. But public opinion is very strong in this case again Derek Chauvin, for obvious reasons. We saw that even during jury selection.

Mary Harris: How did you see that during jury selection?

Jurors were asked to fill out a really extensive survey. One of the questions was, what’s your impression of Derek Chauvin? And also, what’s your impression of George Floyd? So many jurors, even people who eventually got on the final jury, had negative impressions of Chauvin. I think that’s for an obvious reason, which is, how do you watch that video and not have an impression?

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Doctors have come forward for the prosecution to testify against this idea that what happened to Floyd may have been the result of a fentanyl overdose or a heart condition. Tell me a little bit about these physicians and how they’re communicating.

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We’ve seen a parade of medical experts come in. You can break him down into two camps: the toxicologists who can talk about drugs, and the doctors who can talk about Floyd’s underlying health conditions and breathing. I think the most notable expert witness was Dr. Martin Tobin. He’s a pulmonologist, and one of the world’s biggest experts on how we breathe. He testified to the jury in a way that was easy to understand. At one point he was explaining how the neck works and he told the members of the jury to feel back at this part of the body he was trying to explain. Thee members of the jury, according to our pool reporter in the room at the time, actually were doing it so much that the judge, after a complaint from the defense attorney, told the jurors, you don’t need to do what the witness says on the stand. Even after that, Tobin was demonstrating it and most of jurors still doing it, because they wanted to understand. So I think his testimony has helped people understand the complex medical conditions that are at the heart of this case.

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Was there a moment where you felt like the physicians really made the case that Floyd simply wouldn’t have died without Chauvin putting his knee on his neck?

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We’ve seen four different medical experts testify to that, saying that, yes, he had underlying conditions including heart disease, but on May 25 he would have been alive and walking around if not for the law enforcement intervention. What the prosecution is trying to do is prove to the jurors that he would have had heart disease, and he would have had methemphatimes in his system, a small amount, but he still would have been alive and walking around.

There was one expert who said those are the levels of drugs you see in someone who’s walking around, not someone who is on a table and deceased.

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Yeah, toxicologists said that. Even the testimony of the store clerk was that when Floyd originally came into the store, he felt like Floyd was high, but also it was Memorial Day and he looked like he was just going about his life. I think one of the broader issues for the prosecution has been to humanize drug dependency, especially that of a black man, as something that’s actually a medical condition and not a criminal condition.

There were a couple of moments where Chauvin’s lawyers seemed to misfire when they were talking to these eyewitnesses. There was an interview of an EMT who was on the scene and she was really emotional. You can hear her on the tape talking to the police and explaining what she could do as someone who’s trained. And in cross-examination, she spoke back to Chauvin’s lawyer. That was pretty striking to me.

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It felt like she was more antagonistic to the defense attorney, Erik Nelson, than any of the witnesses that we’ve seen. She got held after the jurors were dismissed and was reprimanded by the judge for being combative and argumentative. But I mean, we’re asking normal citizens and people serving in some sort of public capacity to come into court and leave everything behind. I think it’s a really big challenge, especially on a case where the community obviously feels strongly here. The people who witnessed it, it’s part of their life and maybe part of their trauma now too. Of course they’re going to manifest those things sometimes antagonistically.

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So much of the pushback from Chauvin’s lawyers is about anger from these eyewitnesses, anger you could see or hear in the tape of Floyd being killed. The other witness who really stood out to me was a mixed martial arts fighter who was able to look at Chauvin and say, You’re doing something called a blood choke and this is dangerous, here’s why. The defense attorney pressed him about whether Floyd was angry in that moment or being threatening to the cops and the fighter pushed back on that.

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The defense has repeatedly brought up an angry crowd. That’s one of their main arguments: that the crowd didn’t allow them to aid or monitor Floyd’s condition because they were angry and they’re hostile. But calling it a crowd is generous, because at some of the times I counted, there were six or seven people standing on the sidewalk. Pretending like they’re a threat is going to be difficult for the defense to pull off, I think, but it’s just one of the ways they’re trying to poke holes in the prosecution’s argument.

I feel like in this case you can see how the police force is trying to speak back to the community and now want to be trusted again: You’re seeing officer after officer step forward and basically say what happened here was not in line with what we’re trained to do. Can you talk a little bit about which police officers we’ve seen and why they’re important?

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I think the most notable would be police Chief Deira Arradondo, who from the start dismissed what Chauvin did and called it “murder.” He took the stand in this case, saying that Chauvin was not trained like this, that this is not what Minneapolis police represent. A number of other high-ranking officials in the police department, including the head of homicide, took the stand and said similar things.

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When the defense calls witnesses, we’ll likely hear from more police officers and use-of-force experts. Those witnesses will likely complicate the narrative the prosecution is building. One trainer within the Minneapolis police has previously talked about a condition some officers observe among suspects called “excited delirium.” They will say, it’s when someone is acting erratically and sometimes they will develop superhuman strength, so they need to be restrained more than a normal person would be, since they represent a greater danger than a normal person. It’s not recognized by mainstream medical associations.

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So it’s not a condition that a doctor would tell you about, but it is something that police officers are trained to respond to.

It’s a little controversial. There are some doctors who do believe in it, including a police surgeon who testified here. But mainstream medical associations do not qualify it as a condition.

Looking at the first two weeks of testimony in Chauvin’s trial, it stood out to me that so many cops took the stand and said what happened was wrong. Some have called it the crumbling of the “blue wall”—the beginning of the end of unflinching solidarity between police officers.

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The inherent loyalty law enforcement officers have to one another over the public, maybe it is crumbling. But the other way to think about it is: The facts of this case are so damning that it has led police officers to come forward and actually speak out, whereas in many other cases they wouldn’t.

I think the proof is going to be in what happens to the Minneapolis Police Department going forward. Is this just a tone change, or is there going to some substantial change to the Minneapolis Police Department apart from some policy shifts, like banning chokeholds? I think, in the city of Minneapolis, there’s a lot of anxiety about how this is all going to turn out and what it’s going to mean for this city. That’s also why I question whether there will be actual implications for other criminal cases, because the facts of this are so different from most police killings, which tend to involve guns.

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