Officer Derek Chauvin “had to know” he was squeezing the life out of George Floyd as the Black man cried over and over that he couldn’t breathe and finally fell silent, a prosecutor told the jury Monday during closing arguments at Chauvin’s murder trial.
“Use your common sense. Believe your eyes. What you saw, you saw,” Steve Schleicher said, referring to the excruciating bystander video of Floyd pinned to the pavement with Chauvin’s knee on or close to his neck last May for up to 9 minutes, 29 seconds, as bystanders yelled at the white officer to get off.
Chauvin attorney Eric Nelson countered by arguing that Chauvin did what any “reasonable” police officer would have done after finding himself in a “dynamic” and “fluid” situation involving a large man struggling with three police officers.
As Nelson began speaking, Chauvin removed his COVID-19 mask in front of the jury for one of the very few times during the trial.
The dueling arguments got underway with Minneapolis on edge against a repeat of the violence that erupted in the city and around the U.S. last spring over Floyd’s death.
The defense contends the 46-year-old Floyd died of underlying heart disease and his illegal use of fentanyl and methamphetamine.
Nelson, playing police body-camera video, noted that officers who first responded to the corner store where Floyd allegedly tried to pass a counterfeit $20 bill already were struggling with officers when Chauvin arrived as backup.
The defense attorney also noted that the first two officers on the scene were rookies and that police had been told that Floyd might be on drugs.
“A reasonable police officer understands the intensity of the struggle,” Nelson said, saying that Chauvin’s body worn camera and his police badge were knocked off his chest.
Under the law, police officers are given certain latitude to use force. Their actions are supposed to be judged according to what a “reasonable officer” in the same situation would have done.
During prosecution arguments, Schleicher replayed portions of the bystander video and other footage as he dismissed some of the defense theories about the cause of death as “nonsense,” saying Chauvin killed Floyd by constricting his breathing.
Schleicher rejected the drug overdose argument, the contention that police were distracted by what they saw as hostile onlookers, the notion that Floyd had “superhuman” strength from a state of agitation known as excited delirium, and the suggestion that Floyd suffered carbon monoxide poisoning from auto exhaust.
The prosecutor sarcastically referred to the idea that it was heart disease that killed Floyd as an “amazing coincidence.”
“Is that common sense or is that nonsense?” Schleicher asked the racially diverse jury.
Schleicher described how Chauvin ignored Floyd’s cries that he couldn’t breathe and continued to kneel on Floyd after he stopped drawing breath and had no pulse — even after the ambulance arrived.
Chauvin was “on top of him for 9 minutes and 29 seconds and he had to know,” Schleicher said. “He had to know.”
He said Chauvin “heard him, but he just didn’t listen.”
The prosecutor further argued that Floyd “was not a threat to anyone” and wasn’t trying to escape. Instead, Schleicher said, he was terrified of being put into the tiny backseat of the squad car when he struggled with officers
He said a reasonable officer with Chauvin’s training and experience — he was a 19-year Minneapolis police veteran — should have sized up the situation accurately.
Chauvin, wearing a light gray suit with a blue shirt and blue tie, focused on taking notes during the prosecution’s arguments, only occasionally raising his eyes from his notepad. An unidentified woman occupied the single seat set aside in the pandemic-spaced courtroom for a Chauvin supporter.
Floyd’s brother Philonise represented the family in court, as he often has throughout the trial.
Schleicher also noted that Chauvin was required to use his training to provide medical care to Floyd but ignored bystanders, rebuffed help from an off-duty paramedic and rejected a suggestion from another officer to roll Floyd onto his side.
Several witnesses, including one for the defense, said Floyd might have lived if CPR had been administered as soon as he lost a pulse.
“He could have listened to the bystanders. He could have listened to fellow officers. He could have listened to his own training. He knew better. He just didn’t do better,” said Schleicher, adding that even a 9-year-old bystander knew it was dangerous.
“Conscious indifference, indifference. Do you want to know what indifference is and sounds like?” Schleicher asked before playing a video of Chauvin replying, “Uh-huh” several times as Floyd cries out.
The prosecution took about an hour and 45 minutes to make its case, with Schleicher ending his argument by saying: “This wasn’t policing. This was murder.”
The anonymous jury will deliberate in a downtown courthouse surrounded by concrete barriers and razor wire, in a city heavily fortified by National Guard members and just days after a new round of unrest over the police killing of a 20-year-old Black man in a nearby suburb. Some businesses boarded up their storefronts with plywood.
Chauvin, 45, is charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. All three charges require the jury to conclude that Chauvin’s actions were a “substantial causal factor” in Floyd’s death — and that his use of force was unreasonable.
To convict Chauvin of second-degree murder, prosecutors don’t have to prove Chauvin intended to harm Floyd, only that he deliberately applied force, which resulted in harm.
Second-degree intentional murder carries up to 40 years in prison, third-degree murder 25 years, and second-degree manslaughter 10 years. Sentencing guidelines call for far less time, including 12 1/2 years on either murder count.