What’s Different About the Chauvin Trial

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S1: If you tune into the Derek Shervin trial and it’s hard to avoid these days with gavel to gavel coverage online and daily recaps pushed to your phone, one of the things you’ll notice is just how many people there are, at least representing the prosecution.

S2: What’s interesting here is that the prosecution team, I think you can call it robust.

S1: John Collins is covering the trial from Minnesota Public Radio.

S2: The Minnesota attorney general is spearheading this prosecution. And not only do they have Keith Ellison’s team, but they have the team at the Hennepin County attorney who typically would be the ones who prosecute district court cases like this. And they have all these pro bono attorneys who are just volunteering their time, including Neal Katyal,

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S1: former solicitor general. Sure.

S2: Yeah. And well known for arguing many cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

S1: The prosecution’s opening statement was delivered not by a government lawyer, but a local civil rights attorney, the founder of the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers. And something that surprises, John, is that it isn’t just the lawyers who are working for free.

S2: When lawyers call an expert witness, they’re paid. They’re paid. You know, it could be a twelve thousand dollars, even more

S1: so significant amounts of money.

S2: Yeah. And it’s actually the first time I’ve seen expert witnesses who testified who are being paid nothing. Huh? They’re just volunteering their time because they said both of them said on the stand because it’s an important case and they thought they might have something to give to it.

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S1: So far, this kind of charity has not extended to the defense of Derrick Shervin, the police officer accused of killing George Floyd last year by kneeling on his neck for more than nine minutes.

S2: Public opinion is very strong in this case for obvious reasons. Public opinion against Derrick Chauvin, even we saw during jury selection is very strong.

S1: How did you see that during jury selection?

S2: Jurors were asked to fill out a really extensive survey and one of the questions was, what’s your impression of Derrick Chauvin? And also what’s your impression of George Floyd and so many jurors, even people who eventually got on the final jury, had negative impressions of their children? I think that’s for an obvious reason, which is that how do you watch that video and not have an impression?

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S1: Today on the show, it’s hard to predict the way this trial is going to change the perspectives of the 12 jurors who have to decide what happens now. But, John, he’s interested in how it might shift things for the rest of us. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. As the trial starts back up again this week, prosecutors are going to be wrapping up their case against Derek Chauvin. John says so far they’ve called eyewitnesses to George Floyds death. Experts on the use of force by police, but also doctors.

S2: So my impression is that the prosecution is trying to inoculate the jurors against what the defense main arguments are going to be, which is that George Floyd died of the defense argues either a medical condition, a heart condition, or of the drugs that were in the system. He had fentanyl and methamphetamines in the system. So a lot of the testimony has revolved around that.

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S1: So this lends us in the medical testimony, doctor after doctor, who have come forward for the prosecution to basically, as you said, inoculate against this idea that George Floyd had drugs in his system or that what happened may have been the result of a fentanyl overdose or a heart condition. Tell me a little bit about these physicians and whether and how they’re communicating to the jury.

S2: So we’ve seen a parade of medical experts come in and you can break him down kind of into two camps, either the toxicologist who can talk about drugs or the doctors who can talk about Floyd’s underlying health conditions and. Breathing, I think, the most notable. Expert witness that we’ve seen and maybe one of the most impressive I’ve ever seen testify was named Dr. Martin Tobin and he’s a pulmonologist, which means he studies breathing and he’s actually one of the the world’s biggest experts. And, you know, essentially how do we breathe? And he also is a teacher and he testified to the jury in a way, on these really complicated scientific terms in a way that was so easy, even for people like me to understand. At one point he was explaining how people’s neck works and he told the members of the jury to like, feel back at this part of the body that he was trying to explain.

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S3: And now if you put your hand at the back of your neck and you put at the you feel the bottom of your skull and so where the skull, the bone of the skull ends and then you come down

S2: and the members of the jury, according to our pool reporter in the room at the time, actually were doing it. So much so that the judge, after a complaint from the defense attorney, told the jurors, hey, actually, you don’t need to do what the witness says on the stand. And even after that, he was demonstrating it and telling them and most of them were still doing it because they wanted to understand. So I think his testimony has been both like very proficient, of course, because he’s one of the world’s experts on this, but also, like, very easy to grasp and understand these really complex sort of medical conditions that are really at the heart of this case.

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S1: And the defense attorney is at some point they started talking about the fact that George Floyd was speaking, he was saying, I can’t breathe, and whether that means that actually he could breathe because he had enough breath to say words. How did the doctors push back against that idea?

S2: I mean, Tobin specifically addressed that. He said if you can speak, then you can breathe is a dangerous idea because you can breathe now. But 10 seconds later, you could be dead because there’s no oxygen getting to your brain. So he said it’s a really misleading concept. Hmm.

S1: So was there a moment where you felt like these physicians really made the case that George Floyd simply wouldn’t have died without Derek Chauvin putting his knee on his neck?

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S2: We’ve seen four different medical experts testify to that, saying, yes, he had underlying conditions, including heart disease, but on May 25th. He would have been alive and walking around with heart disease if not for the law enforcement intervention here. And so overall, what the prosecution is trying to do is prove to the jurors that he would have had heart disease and he would have had like meth in his system a small amount, but he still would have been alive and walking around.

S1: You’re one physician, I think, said these are the levels of drugs you see in someone who’s walking around, not someone who is on a table and deceased.

S2: Yeah, toxicologists said that and even the testimony of the store clerk was that when George Floyd originally came into the store, he said he felt like George Floyd was high, but also it was Memorial Day and he looked like he was just going about his life. So I think one of the broader issues for the prosecution has been to humanize addiction and humanize the addiction specifically or drug dependency of a black man as actually something that’s a medical condition and not a criminal condition.

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S1: The prosecution is likely to rest their case after presenting what’s called spark of life evidence. That’s photos of George Floyd’s childhood and testimony from Floyd’s brother. John says looking at the way the defense cross-examined witnesses over the past few weeks, it’s there. Any clear how they’ll try to chip away at the prosecution when it’s their turn to present evidence, even though so far their tactics don’t seem to be working as an outsider? There were a couple of moments where Derek Chauvin’s lawyers, they seemed to misfire when they were talking to these eyewitnesses. There was a moment where there is an interview of a firefighter, EMT who was on the scene and she was really emotional. And you can hear her in the tape, you know, talking back to the police and, you know, explaining what she could do as someone who’s trained and is, you know, someone who’s part of the law enforcement community in Minneapolis. And in cross-examination, the lawyer for Derek Chauvin asked, you know, why do you use profanity? You know, why were you angry essentially at this moment? And she spoke back to him. And it’s pretty striking to me.

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S4: And some some people were. Swear? Absolutely. And would you describe other people’s demeanors as upset or angry?

S1: I don’t know if you’ve seen anybody be killed, but it’s upsetting. Like I hadn’t heard witnesses speak like that to the lawyers questioning them before.

S2: It certainly stood out to us. Court is intimidating anyway, being in a courtroom because the judge and attorneys and court staff are all kind of their own culture and they have a certain way of doing things. In this case, she specifically stood out because almost from the very start, she was obviously invested and she was a bystander. But she also had her professional EMT and firefighter experience to call on to try to convince the police officers to allow her to treat George Floyd. And it felt like she was. More antagonistic to the defense attorney, Erik Nelson, than any of the witnesses that we’ve seen, and it actually led to the comment that you talked about being struck by the judge, he said it’s not allowable to say that. And she got held after after the jurors were dismissed and reprimanded by the judge for being combative, for being argumentative. But I mean, I think it’s part of what we’re asking people is normal citizens or even people like her who are 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 obviously the community feels strongly here, but the people who witnessed it, it’s part of their life and maybe part of their trauma now, too. And of course, they’re going to manifest those things sometimes antagonistically.

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S1: Yes. So much of the pushback from Dirk Chauvin’s lawyers was about anger from these eyewitnesses, you know, anger that he felt you could see or hear in the videotape of George Floyd being killed. The other witness who really stood out to me was a guy who’s mixed martial arts fighter and was able to look at Derek Chauvin and say, you’re doing something called a blood choke and this is dangerous. And here’s why. And the defense attorney. Really pressed him about whether he was angry in that moment or so, how threatening to the cops and he pushed back to that, he said that’s for you to perceive.

S4: It’s fair to say that as you were there, you grew angrier. Correct. Right. That’s what you perceive pardon as it is, that’s what you took from the video, right, as you were there and interacting with Officer Tao and Officer Shervin, you grew more and more upset. Would you agree with that? You were angry, right? Our group control professionalism,

S2: the defense has repeatedly brought up an angry crowd. That’s one of their main arguments, is that the crowd didn’t allow them to aid or monitor George Floyds condition because they’re angry and they’re hostile. And I think that witness, specifically the defense, wanted to highlight because he is. A mixed martial artist and he has a background in wrestling and in boxing is a fighter. Yeah, and I think what they were trying to get at is they’re like larger idea, though, of an angry black man who could potentially be a threat. But I mean, if that’s what they want to do, then he is the only example, I think, on the sidewalk of someone who potentially could be a threat if he wanted to be, because most of the people on the sidewalk were under 18 for witnesses testified who are all girls under the age of 18 at the time George Floyd was killed, including a nine year old who took the stand. So that argument that the crowd, which calling it a crowd is generous, I think, because at some times I counted there was six or seven people standing on the sidewalk pretending like they’re a threat is going to be, I think, difficult for the defense to pull off. But like, it’s just one of the ways they’re trying to poke holes in the prosecution’s argument.

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S1: Hearing that testimony from the mixed martial arts fighter, for me, it was a good reminder that it’s really the whole police force in Minneapolis that’s facing anger from the community. And so I feel like in in the case you can see how the police force is trying to speak back to the community and be firm and they want to be trusted again, because you’re seeing officer after officer step forward and basically say what happened here was not in line with what we were trained to do. Can you talk a little bit about which police officers we’ve seen and why they’re important?

S2: I think the most notable would be police chief Madeira Arredondo, who very strongly from the start dismissed what Derek Chauvin did and called it murder of George Floyd. And he took the stand in this case saying that Derek Chauvin was not trained like this, that this is not essentially what Minneapolis police represent. And a number of other official high ranking officials in the police department, including the head of homicide, took the stand and said similar things.

S1: John says the defense is likely to call more police officers, more use of force experts. Those witnesses are going to complicate the narrative the prosecution is building like one trainer with the Minneapolis police who’s previously talked about a condition called excited delirium.

S2: They will say it’s when someone is, you know, acting erratically. And, you know, sometimes they say they will take their clothes off or they will develop superhuman strength. And so they need to be restrained more than a normal person would be, and they represent a greater danger than a normal person would be. There seems to be a trend that police officers will use it sometimes, especially to justify use of force cases, but it’s not recognized by mainstream medical associations.

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S1: 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.

S2: It’s a little controversial. There are some doctors who do believe in it, including one who testified, who’s a police surgeon. But the mainstream medical associations do not qualify it as a condition.

S1: When we come back, prosecutors are putting a historic amount of resources behind this trial to try to get a conviction. But is the effort to reform policing getting the same kind of attention?

S5: And we’re back.

S1: Looking at the first two weeks of testimony in Derek Chauvin’s trial, it stood out to me that so many cops, including the police chief in Minneapolis, took the stand and once they got there, they said what happened here was wrong. Some have called this the crumbling of the so-called blue wall. So I asked John, does he think we’re seeing the beginning of the end of unflinching solidarity between police officers?

S2: I think there’s two ways to think about it. And one is maybe it is the inherent loyalty the law enforcement have to one another over the public. Maybe it is that crumbling. But the other way to think about is maybe the facts of this case are just so damning that that has led police officers to come forward and actually speak out, whereas in many other cases they haven’t. So, I mean, I think the proof is going to be in what happens to the Minneapolis police department going forward. Are there going to be substantial changes to how they interact with the community?

S1: Hmm. I wonder a little bit when you look at this trial, how it compares to the previous trials you’ve covered and seen where police are accused of doing something awful. Does this trial look or feel different in some way?

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S2: I do think this is different from previous cases we saw. We saw the trial of Mohammed Noor, former police officer who was convicted of killing Australian woman Justin Ross. Check and Arredondo, the chief, did testify there as well. But we also had a number of rank and file police officers, including lots who showed up on the scene after Justin Ross check was killed and were not cooperative with the investigation. And I do think there is at least a tone change within the witnesses that have been called. But the larger question in Minneapolis, as everywhere, is, is this just a tone change or is there going to be some substantial change to the Minneapolis police department? And as far as now, we have not seen any. Practical change to the Minneapolis police department, apart from some policy shifts, say, banning chokeholds and things like that. So there’s a lot going on right now. And I think in the city of Minneapolis, there’s a lot of, like, anxiety about how this is all going to turn out and what it’s going to mean for the city.

S1: Yeah, I think a lot about something you talked about, which is whether this case is singular or whether it means something more is happening. Like you mentioned in an earlier episode. That part of what makes this case different is that a lot of use of force cases, their shootings, and so it relies on this idea of a split second decision. And that’s a real difference with the Derek Shervin case, because it was minute after minute of him actively making the choice to have his his knee on George Floyd’s neck, which is terrible, but also makes me wonder, no matter what happens here, whether what goes on will somehow be broadly applicable to other use of force cases.

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S2: Yeah, I mean, I think you bring up a really good point. The reason that this taking place over a long period of time where versus, you know, just in a split second matters is a legal reason, essentially because it applies to the case law and the statute and it applies to perhaps whether or not Shervin and the other officers eventually get convicted or not. But that won’t apply to most police use of force cases because the United States guns are involved. And most of these it’s normally not something that stretches out for nine minutes, 29 seconds, almost immediately in almost all of the police cases that I’ve covered, the officer will say they felt in fear for their life in that moment. And the jury will be asked to say, OK, knowing what this police officer knew in this moment, was that a reasonable idea? And that’s why this case is different. And that’s also why, like I question whether there will be actual implications for other criminal cases, because the facts of this case are so different from most police killings, which involve guns.

S1: Hmm. I wonder if, as this trial is moving forward, you’ve checked in with your sources in the community and how they’re feeling about what they’re seeing. Do they feel like it’s what they expected or is there a sense that this is the prosecution they were looking for?

S2: I think people are really skeptical that. What they see as justice is going to be delivered here. So whether that means just a lesser charge that he’s convicted of or if it means even that he’s exonerated because, of course, we never know what a jury is actually going to decide on. But I think I mean, people need the system to. Convince them that it can be trusted, and I think that’s why there’s all this effort that’s going into it, not only from the attorney general but the Hennepin County Attorney’s office and all these other places to try and convict Chauvin of this crime that he’s charged with here, because the public saw it like the legal world and the public world are so different and the public saw what children did in that long video and they’ve already made their minds up. But the legal system now is trying to take what happened to George Floyd and convince the public that, hey, we’re actually doing our jobs and we actually represent you. And we do have an equitable system that represents everyone as victims. And I think people are skeptical and need to be thoroughly convinced.

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S1: John Collins, thank you so much for joining me.

S2: Thanks for having me in there.

S1: John Collins covers class and criminal justice at Minnesota Public Radio. He also won a Peabody Award for his podcast, 74 seconds. Go check it out. And that’s the show the folks who make what next every day, that’s Davis land, Daniel Hewitt, Mary Wilson, Elena Schwartz and Carmel Dilshad, Alicia Montgomery and Allison Benedikt make the questions we ask even sharper every day. And I’m Mary Harris. You can find me on Twitter posting about all the weird things that happened in our interviews that get cut out, like how this interview was interrupted a couple of times by a rogue Roomba.

S2: Like I question whether it will be actually different when my robot vacuum just started

S1: and the Roomba tracked me down at Maria’s desk. Thanks for listening. I will catch you back here tomorrow.