ABOVE PHOTO: In this image from Minneapolis city surveillance video, Minneapolis police are seen attempting to take George Floyd into custody May 25, 2020, in Minneapolis, Minn. The video was shown as Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill presides Monday, March 29, 2021, in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, in the death of George Floyd at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis, Minn. (Court TV via AP, Pool)
By Michael Tarm
CHICAGO — Video is playing a huge role in the early stages of the trial of a former Minneapolis police officer charged in George Floyd’s death, and a worldwide audience has been shown more than just the widely seen bystander video that set off nationwide protests last year.
Derek Chauvin, 45, is charged with murder and manslaughter in the May 25 death of Floyd, who was Black. Chauvin pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for over 9 minutes during Floyd’s arrest on suspicion of passing a counterfeit $20 bill.
HOW QUICKLY DID THE ISSUE OF VIDEO COME UP?
Almost immediately. Minutes into his opening statement, prosecutor Jerry Blackwell spoke about the widely circulated video shot by teenage bystander Darnella Frazier. He then played part of it for jurors.
The video shows Chauvin with his knee wedged into the back of Floyd’s neck. Chauvin didn’t move even as Floyd’s body went limp.
Prosecutors clearly want the images and sounds of Floyd, pleading nearly 30 times that he couldn’t breathe and calling for his mother, to stay fixed in jurors’ minds throughout the trial and into deliberations.
“He put his knee upon his neck and his back, grinding and crushing him, until the very breath … until the very life, was squeezed out of him,” Blackwell told jurors.
The video was played heavily in the trial’s second day.
WHAT ARE THE NEW VIDEOS?
Prosecutors Monday played video from an elevated police surveillance camera that hadn’t been previously released publicly. It shows officers first trying to get Floyd into a police vehicle, then pulling him out and putting him on the ground. Jena Scurry, a police dispatcher, testified that she checked that camera’s feed off and on over several minutes and became concerned because the officers stayed in the same position for so long.
“My instincts were telling me that something is wrong. Something is not right,” Scurry said. She eventually called a sergeant to report what she had seen.
Several additional bystander videos were played in the trial’s early days, showing Floyd’s treatment from slightly different angles. One was shot by a man parked in a car behind Floyd’s when officers pulled Floyd from the car at gunpoint.
Other new video included surveillance video from inside the Cup Foods store where Floyd was accused of passing the counterfeit bill, as well as street level surveillance video outside the store.
WHAT ABOUT THE DEFENSE?
Defense attorney Eric Nelson in his opening statement said the bystander video is just one exhibit among hundreds that will be entered into evidence.
“The evidence is far greater than 9 minutes and 29 seconds,” he said.
That evidence, he said, includes video from officers’ body cameras. He said the totality of the evidence would paint a different picture and help prove his client’s innocence.
Nelson said other video would show Floyd slipping drugs into his mouth and the 6-foot-3 man struggling with officers before Chauvin pinned him to the ground.
Nelson also noted that police body-camera video will show how a growing crowd of onlookers were screaming at officers, which he said diverted attention from caring for Floyd to the possible threat in front of them.
“As the crowd grew in size, seemingly so too did their anger … there is a growing crowd and what officers perceive to be a threat.” His questions to those witnesses were often aimed at drawing out their feelings of anger at what they saw and in their shouts to police.
DOESN’T VIDEO ITSELF PROVE THE CASE?
Not necessarily. Despite the disturbing video, prosecutors still must show some supporting evidence that it was Chauvin’s actions that contributed to Floyd’s death, especially to prove murder.
The defense already indicated in pretrial hearings that they will try to show there wasn’t a direct causal link between Chauvin’s actions and Floyd’s death, and that drugs Floyd took and underlying health conditions may have been responsible.
But many legal experts say the video evidence in Chauvin’s case is among the most convincing they have ever seen.
“The video in this case is extremely compelling,” said Phil Turner, a Chicago-based lawyer and former federal prosecutor. “If you are the defense, you want jurors to get in the weeds, into issues other than the video. If you are the prosecutors … you want jurors focused on that video.”
WILL JURORS BE ABLE TO VIEW VIDEO DURING DELIBERATIONS?
Jurors can’t take copies of video into the deliberation room, view it there, and talk about it frame by frame. Under rules of trial procedure in Minnesota, they can ask the judge if they can see video evidence again. If allowed, they can only view it in open court with other trial participants present.
The rule is meant to prevent jurors from fixating on certain evidence to the exclusion of other evidence, explained Mary Moriarty, the former chief public defender for Hennepin County.
Turner said such a rule is not the standard elsewhere. He said allowing jurors to view video evidence in the jury room and to discuss what they see among themselves can be crucial in reaching the right verdict.