Prosecutors are wrapping up their case against former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin with the defense expected to start calling witnesses on Tuesday, putting an end to two weeks of testimony from bystanders, fellow law enforcement officers and medical witnesses that multiple legal experts told Forbes will be difficult for Chauvin’s defense team to overcome.
“I think they have done an exceedingly good job with a very difficult case,” said University of Minnesota Law Professor David Schultz, noting the prosecution tried to build an “arc” of witness testimony to convince jurors of the more severe charges against Chauvin.
Prosecutors drew emotional accounts from bystanders at the scene who described Chauvin’s demeanor to establish the officer’s frame of mind as “depraved” as a third-degree murder charge requires, Schultz said.
They also called George Floyd’s girlfriend to the stand for testimony about their relationship and joint struggles with drug addiction—a move that, according to Schultz, helped control the narrative around his drug use and could preempt the defense’s strategy.
Prosecutors then had to jump through a “fairly big hurdle” in terms of proving Chauvin is not entitled to qualified immunity—a nationwide law allowing officers to use force (as long as it’s reasonable) that has protected police against guilty verdicts in misconduct cases in the past—as they moved onto the crux of their argument: showing Floyd’s death resulted from excessive police force.
“To me, that was the strongest moment in the prosecution’s case,” Justin Hansford, a Howard Law School professor and head of the university’s Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center, said of the multiple police witnesses who testified that Chauvin violated policy, including Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arrandondo.
But the prosecution’s case hasn’t left Chauvin’s lead defense attorney Eric Nelson without opportunities, said fellow Minnesota defense lawyer Mike Brandt, who thought Nelson was effective in sowing doubt where possible.
Through pointing out contradictions in witness testimony and focusing on both Floyd’s drug use and health problems, Nelson was “building his wall of defense,” said Brandt, highlighting that “these are difficult cases to win” for the prosecution.
“Remember the defense doesn’t have to prove its case, it only has to prove reasonable doubt,” said Schultz. “I would be surprised on all three counts if you got three unanimous verdicts of acquittal, but ask me in a week after the defense is done and I may have a different answer.”
Despite the fact that Floyd’s death sparked an international racial justice movement, the topic of race has been largely avoided by the prosecution. While Schultz described this as a smart move, avoiding the possibility of legal objections, Hansford, a Black Lives Matter activist and race theory scholar, warned that it could “backfire” to “pretend this wasn’t a historic turning point in race relations in America.”
“It’s artificial to act like if George Floyd was a white man things would’ve happened the same way,” Hansford said. “It’s a risk actually to move through that veil of illusion because you don’t know how the jurors think about race, and you’re not making a case that perhaps that played a role.”
The state called to the witness stand pedestrians and store employees who witnessed Floyd’s May 25 arrest, two paramedics and the emergency room doctor who testified Floyd was dead by the time he reached their care, multiple police officers from different departments who said Chauvin violated police policy, and various medical experts who concluded Floyd died of oxygen deprivation. During cross-examination, Nelson repeatedly questioned witnesses on Floyd’s drug use and health issues, attempting to set the foundation for his argument that Floyd died from an overdose or a heart attack. Nelson also sought to sow doubt in some of the basic facts of the case, including where Chauvin had his knee placed during the arrest and the potential role of bystanders in influencing officers’ decision-making. He did gain some admissions from the state’s witnesses, like when he showed a snippet of video of Chauvin’s knee appearing closer to Floyd’s shoulder blade and asked about the potential negative reactions of methamphetamine and fentanyl when mixed together (both of which were found in Floyd’s body). Still, he will ultimately have to contend with testimony from medical experts, including the medical examiner who performed Floyd’s autopsy, about his cause of death when he begins calling witnesses on Tuesday.
What To Watch For
A decision in Chauvin’s trial is expected to come next week as Judge Peter A. Cahill marked Monday as the start of jury deliberation. Chauvin, a 19-year Minneapolis Police Department veteran, faces charges of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in Floyd’s death.