Opening statements began Monday in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer on trial for the alleged murder of George Floyd, the man whose death sparked international protests against racism and police brutality.
Both the prosecution and defence laid out their narrative of the events of Floyd’s May 25 arrest and death, discussing how their witnesses – who number in the hundreds – will prove their theories.
The trial began with the infamous video of the arrest, which shows Floyd’s death.
Jerry Blackwell, a prosecutor with the attorney general’s office, described Chauvin, who is white, as engaging in excessive force during the arrest and prevention of others from assisting Floyd, who was Black, as he lay dying.
Blackwell showed an image of the arrest taken on a mobile phone, which showed Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck, “grinding and crushing him until the very breath”.
Floyd died while Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, an event caught on camera in a widely seen video, which became a rallying cry for demonstrators.
Blackwell said Minneapolis’s chief of police would testify that Chauvin’s conduct did not agree with the training he was provided as a member of the police force.
Chauvin is charged with unintentional second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
The former police officer pleaded not guilty to the charges. He could face up to 40 years in prison if convicted on the most serious charge, though Minnesota sentencing guidelines suggest it would be closer to 10.75 to 15 years.
“This case is about more than 9 minutes and 29 seconds”, defence lawyer Eric Nelson told jurors, referencing the length of the widely-seen video.
Nelson said Chauvin’s conduct was in line with police training and depicted the circumstances of the arrest as a high-risk endeavour for Chauvin and the three other officers on the scene: J Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao, who will stand trial separately.
Nelson said 38th Street and Chicago Avenue, the intersection where Floyd was arrested, is a “high crime” area. As officers conducted the arrest, the crowd that watched them grew more aggressive, raising tensions.
Floyd’s size – he stood almost two metres (6ft 6in) and weighed 101kg (223lbs) – made the arrest difficult, prompting Chauvin’s response.
“Use of force is not attractive, but it is a necessary component of policing,” Nelson said.
Demonstrators peacefully stood outside the Hennepin County Government Center, the location of the trial. They also have remained at the intersection where Floyd died, renaming it “George Floyd Square”, though authorities intend to retake the square.
Reverend Al Sharpton and Benjamin Crump, a Floyd family lawyer, took a knee outside the government centre ahead of the trial.
“We are taking a knee for eight minutes and 46 seconds, and we want you to think of during that time, why Chauvin didn’t, in that time get his knee up,” Sharpton said at the conference.
The case is expected to take around one month, given its lengthy witness list, though it could conclude sooner.