With George Floyd’s family and attorney, members of the media, and protesters gathered outside the courthouse, the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin—who stands accused of murdering the unarmed Black man last May—began Monday with opening statements from the prosecution and defense.
“Today starts a landmark trial that will be a referendum on how far America has come on its quest for equality and justice for all,” Floyd family lawyer Benjamin Crump said at a press conference outside Hennepin County Courthouse.
“This murder case is not hard, just look at the torture video of George Floyd,” he addeed.
According to the New York Times, Philonise Floyd, George’s brother, told the gathered crowd that “they say, ‘Trust the system.’ Well this is your chance to show us we can trust you.”
Relatives of Floyd and their supporters also took a knee for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the widely reported amount of time that Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck.
However, as prosecuting attorney Jerry Blackwell repeatedly said during his opening statement, Chuavin actually kneeled on Floyd for nine minutes and 29 seconds.
“You will learn that on May 25 of 2020, Mr. Derek Chauvin betrayed his badge when he used excessive and unreasonable force upon the body of Mr. George Floyd,” Blackwell told the jurors—nine women and five men; eight of them white, four Black, and two mixed-race. “He put his knees upon his neck and his back, grinding and crushing him until the very breath… until the very life was squeezed out of him.”
Blackwell then played bystander video of the killing, showing Chauvin atop Floyd as he pleaded for air and said “you’re killing me” and “I’m dying.”
The prosecutor said Floyd was “not simply an object of excessive use of force by police, he was a person… He was 46 years old. He was a father, a brother, a cousin, a friend to many… He was somebody to a lot of other bodies in the world.”
“We’re going to show you through the evidence that there was no excuse for the police abuse of Mr. Chauvin,” Blackwell said.
“We’re going to ask at the end of this case that you find Mr. Chauvin guilty for his excessive use of force against George Floyd,” he added, “an assault that contributed to taking his life and for engaging in imminently dangerous behavior—putting a knee on the neck, putting a knee on the back, for nine minutes and 29 seconds without regard for Mr. Floyd’s life.”
Blackwell refuted the defense’s suggestion that Floyd died of a drug overdose and a “compromised heart.” While acknowledging there was fentanyl in his system when he was killed, Blackwell explained that Floyd built up a tolerance for the drug while battling an opioid addiction for years and asserted that someone dying from an opioid overdose would appear asleep.
“They’re not screaming for their lives, they’re not calling for their mothers, not begging ‘Please, please, I can’t breathe,'” he said. “That’s not what an opioid overdose looks like.”
Blackwell concluded: “We’re going to ask that you find him guilty of murder in the second degree, murder in the third degree, and second-degree manslaughter.”
Arguing that “the evidence is far greater than nine minutes and 29 seconds,” lead defense attorney Eric J. Nelson in his opening statement asked the jury to “let common sense and reason guide you.”
“There is no political or social cause in this courtroom, he added.
Nelson attempted to portray Floyd as a drug-addled criminal who was “under the influence of something” when he allegedly passed a counterfeit $20 bill at the convenience store near where he was killed.
“You will see that three Minneapolis police officers could not overcome the strength of Mr. Floyd,” said Nelson, deploying a tactic that racial justice advocates have called a racist trope of Black men with superhuman strength beyond the ability of officers to control.
The defense lawyer also said that Chauvin and other officers on the scene were frightened by the growing and increasingly infuriated crowd of bystanders that witnessed Floyd’s death.
“As the crowd grew in size, seemingly so too did their anger,” said Nelson, who argued that the responding officers perceived these people as “a threat” that caused them to “divert their attention from the care of Mr. Floyd to the threat that was growing in front of them.”
“When you review the actual evidence, and when you hear the law and apply reason and common sense, there will be only one just verdict, and that is to find Mr. Chauvin not guilty,” Nelson concluded.
Numerous obeservers condemned what they said was the defense’s strategy of putting Floyd on trial along with Chauvin.
“Jurors must remember who’s on trial—and who is not,” said Rashad Robinson, president of the racial justice group Color of Change. “Nearly a year ago, Derek Chauvin targeted George Floyd, pinned him to the street, and murdered him in broad daylight. Based on what we heard in opening remarks, the defense will try to slander Mr. Floyd’s name and portray him as a criminal in a brazen but predictable attempt to justify Mr. Chauvin’s actions.”
“But Mr. Chauvin is the one standing trial—not Mr. Floyd—and there is simply no justification for murder,” added Robinson. “The defense team’s strategy is a tired, overused tactic employed by police unions and associations nationwide: blame the victim. We have seen it used time and time again to protect officers accused of senseless, murderous crimes against Black people.”
Floyd’s relatives and attorneys, however, said they felt the case against Chauvin was more than solid. Appearing on NBC’s “Today” show Monday morning, Philonise Floyd said that “we know that this case, to us, is a slam dunk because we know the video is the proof.”
“That’s all you need,” Floyd continued. “The guy was kneeling on my brother’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. A guy who was sworn in to protect; he killed my brother in broad daylight. That was a modern-day lynching. We feel good, and we will be there today to sit there and look and see what’s going on in the courtroom.”
Crump also appeared on Today, telling host Craig Melvin that “everybody keeps trying to say this is a hard, difficult case. If George Floyd was a white American citizen, nobody would say this is a hard case.”
“Everything they’re trying to do is assault his character so they can distract us from what happened in the video,” Crump asserted. “As Philonise said, and we all know, what killed George Floyd was a knee on his neck while he said ‘I can’t breathe’ 28 times.”
“So, America, the whole world is watching,” he added. “Do we really have equality and justice for all?”