Our reporters break down key moments in the Chauvin trial
We checked in with our team of reporters who’ve been following the trial to ask what the key moments were from this week’s proceedings and what each is watching for as the trial winds to a close.
What was a key moment in the trial this week?
Brakkton Booker, national political correspondent and author of The Recast:
For me, it was the defense witness Barry Vance Brodd, who is a former officer and now runs a firm that consults on police tactics and use of force. He told the court that in his opinion, “Officer Chauvin’s interactions with Mr. Floyd were following his training, following current practices in policing and were objectively reasonable.”
Mind you, just last week the Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said Chauvin’s tactics for restraining Floyd were “in no way shape or form is anything that is by policy, part of our training and is certainly not part of our ethics or values.”
Also, under cross-examination by the prosecution, Brodd was pressed on whether Chauvin’s left knee on Floyd’s neck and right knee on Floyd’s arm could cause pain, and could be considered a use of force. He also told the prosecution that a person who is restrained should be placed on their side to alleviate the dangers of positional asphyxiation, seemingly underscoring the prosecution’s cause of death.
Nolan McCaskill, race and policy reporter:
For me, it was the latest reminder of how little has actually changed since George Floyd was killed. As the Derek Chauvin trial nears its end with closing arguments and jury deliberations set to begin Monday, another case is just beginning: Kim Potter has been charged with second-degree manslaughter after fatally shooting Daunte Wright, who is biracial, at a traffic stop Sunday, not far from where the trial is being held.
Almost five years ago, police pulled over another Black man, Philando Castile, for a traffic stop not far from the Hennepin County Courthouse. He, too, was fatally shot, and the offending officer was charged with second-degree manslaughter (plus two counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm). That officer was acquitted.
Josh Gerstein, senior legal affairs correspondent:
I’m with Brakkton: Tuesday’s cross-examination of Barry Brodd, the expert witness for the defense, was the pivotal moment of the week. While Brodd testified as expected that Chauvin’s initial use of force against Floyd was reasonable, the expert conceded under prosecution questioning that as the encounter continued Chauvin must have known Floyd was no longer resisting.
While probably unintentional, this amounted to the defense almost throwing in the towel on one of its two central arguments. It seemed to leave the defense’s only hope as persuading jurors that Floyd’s drug use and heart condition raised some doubt about whether Chauvin’s prolonged kneeling on Floyd actually caused his death.
What surprised you?
Brakkton: Generally speaking, I was anticipating a longer list of witnesses to be called by the defense. In total the defense called a total of seven witnesses. That’s compared to the prosecution calling 37 witnesses.
Josh: While the fact that there was another police shooting of an African-American during the trial is tragically not shocking, I am surprised that when such an incident took place so close to Minneapolis on Sunday (in suburban Brooklyn Center, Minn.), the judge took no substantive steps to address it. Judge Peter Cahill turned down the defense’s request to question jurors about the shooting of 20-year-old Daunte Wright.
Just last month, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case about whether prejudicial publicity so permeated the trial of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev that his death sentence should be overturned. Given the outrage in Minnesota over Wright’s shooting, it seems certain Chauvin’s defense will be raising similar issues if he is convicted.
Maya King, race and politics reporter: The ultimate verdict of this trial will send a message about not just whether or not Derek Chauvin is guilty of murder but also whether or not use of force is a viable police tactic. I was most struck by how clear-eyed the medical examiners’ testimonies were, particularly that of Andrew Baker, Hennepin County medical examiner, who made it clear that George Floyd died of asphyxiation, rather than fentanyl or heart disease as the defense suggested.
Anything you thought was super predictable?
Nolan: I wasn’t surprised that Chauvin chose to invoke the Fifth Amendment rather than testify, which would’ve opened him up to cross-examination by the prosecution and likely attracted even more attention to the trial.
Josh: Most of the press accounts of the trial remained detached and rather old-school. This reminded me that in an era of “voice” and “lived experience,” most reporting on the courts clings to the much-pilloried objective school of journalism. A lot of good reporting on systemic flaws plaguing the justice system has still stuck to the traditional, not-openly-crusading approach.
What do we lose by not having reporters openly inject their views into the trial coverage and, say, declaring Chauvin’s guilt? It is perhaps the quintessential “both sides” kind of reporting, but traditionally we’ve viewed that as an extension of the American tradition of treating defendants as presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. And given that most trials aren’t of police officers, what would be the implications of abandoning terms like “alleged”?
Brakkton: If this were playing out like a network court procedural the defense witness would have taken the stand just before the end of the episode for a dramatic cross-examination scene.
This is real life. Defense attorney Eric Nelson and Chauvin both understand the stakes would be too great for that to happen. So like Nolan said, Chauvin not taking the witness stand was easily the most predictable moment of this week and the entire trial.
Maya: Both sides have presented their case as expected: the prosecution underlined the details of Floyd’s death by repeatedly playing video footage of him suffocating under Chauvin’s knee. The defense has called into question whether Floyd’s past — drug use, heart issues — were the cause of his death rather than Chauvin.
What was the quote of the week?
Brakkton: I’ve got to go back to the exchange between Brodd and prosecutor Steve Schleicher when they were doing a bit of verbal jousting over what constitutes Chauvin being on top of Floyd. After a bit, Brodd relented and agreed the knee was “on top” of Floyd, not just “the upper spine and neck area.”
Nolan: I thought Philonise Floyd’s testimony was necessary. So often when we mention George Floyd, we talk about the man who died. But Philonise, George’s younger brother, was able to talk about the man who lived. He smiled when the prosecution published memories of George and described him as a good big brother who loved his mother. George was also an athlete who couldn’t cook but still made “the best banana mayonnaise sandwiches.”
“I miss both of them,” Philonise Floyd said of his brother and mother, who died in 2018, after the prosecution published an image of a young, sleeping George wrapped in his smiling mother’s arms. “May 24, I got married, and my brother was killed May 25, and my mom died on May 30. It’s like a bittersweet month because I’m supposed to be happy when that month comes.”
Josh: One tense exchange this week was over whether car exhaust might’ve contributed to Floyd’s death. After former Maryland Medical Examiner David Fowler said it did, prosecutors said they wanted to present evidence that carbon monoxide levels in Floyd’s blood were too low to have had any impact. But the judge bluntly warned them that trying to bring in that evidence at this late stage would trigger a mistrial.
What will next week bring?
Josh: Next week is closing arguments. I expect them to boil down this way….for the prosecution: the video and common sense. The defense did bring in experts to argue that Chauvin’s kneeling on Floyd was reasonable (at least for a time) and that other causes contributed to Floyd’s death. That might establish reasonable doubt, so prosecutors will argue (perhaps not quite explicitly) that jurors should not pay too much attention to the experts on either side, simply look at the disturbing video and use their common sense to see why Floyd died.
The defense will be looking to find at least one juror who has enough doubt about Chauvin’s guilt to fight the prevailing view. The defense lawyers will paint the case as a battle-of-the-experts and contend that the fact that credible experts disagree means, by definition, that there is a reasonable doubt. If the defense does find some traction on the jury, one key question is whether there is a stalemate or whether such disagreement prompts jurors to coalesce around the lesser charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Brakkton: Like Josh said, we are nearing the crescendo of the case. It will soon be in the hands of the jury to decide whether to convict Chauvin of the second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter.
Once it’s in the jury’s hands, it will be difficult to predict when it will return verdicts on the charges. But it’s expected to go beyond next week.
Maya: We don’t know what [the verdict] will be yet, but given the fact that two more police shootings have made national headlines this week, we can expect a fair amount of tension around this case, which at this point has grown beyond one officers’ use of force against one unarmed Black man.
Nolan: We’ll collectively wait with bated breath on a verdict. Judge Peter Cahill has instructed jurors to “plan for long and hope for short,” so it’s unclear how long deliberations will last. But we’ve seen this movie many times before. The question is whether this jury will give us a different ending.
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