5 key moments that shaped the Chauvin trial
The trial of ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin gripped the Twin Cities and the nation for weeks before concluding Tuesday in Chauvin’s conviction for murder and manslaughter in the killing of George Floyd.
Inside the hundreds of hours of testimony and video were moments of high drama. Here are five that MPR News reporters covering the trial thought were especially significant.
1) ‘He didn’t care’
Four witnesses testified off camera because they were minors last summer, including a tearful Darnella Frazier, who had just turned 18. She took the cellphone video seen by millions of people.
If not for her, this case might never have happened.
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She was walking to Cup Foods with her younger cousin when she came upon the officers, and sent the girl into the store because she didn’t want her to see “a man terrified, scared, begging for his life.”
Frazier grew emotional at times, breathing heavily and crying as she viewed pictures of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd last May. Frazier said of Chauvin: “He just stared at us, looked at us. He had like this cold look, heartless. He didn’t care. It seemed as if he didn’t care what we were saying.”
When asked to identify the officer, Chauvin stood up in the courtroom and took off his mask, appearing somber as he looked down and away before putting his mask on.
Frazier said the incident changed her life.
"When I look at George Floyd, I look at my dad, I look at my brothers, I look at my cousins, my uncles. Because they are all Black," she said.
"I look at how that could have been one of them. It's been nights I stayed up apologizing and apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more, and not physically interacting, and not saving his life."
2) ‘Blue wall’ falls
Defense attorney Eric Nelson argued over and again during the trial that Chauvin was just doing his job to subdue a suspect within the bounds of Minneapolis police policy and training. But that argument took repeated hits during the trial from a line of officers, including Chauvin’s bosses.
The biggest hit came from the most important officer — Minneapolis police Chief Medaria Arradondo. He told jurors on April 5 that, essentially, Chauvin was a rogue cop in those final minutes he was subduing Floyd.
Once Floyd stopped resisting and then stopped responding, “to continue to apply that level of force to a person, proned out, handcuffed behind their back, that in no way shape or form is anything that is by policy. It’s not part of our training, and it is certainly not part of our ethics or values.”
It was an extraordinary moment. Police often rally around fellow officers accused of killing people on the job. The reluctance of officers to speak out against another officer is often called the “blue wall of silence.”
3) Chauvin takes the Fifth
Chauvin’s decision last Thursday to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and not take the stand felt like an important moment.
It had been a looming question whether he’d testify — and this was the first time Chauvin could be heard speaking at his own trial since jury selection began five weeks earlier.
Before jurors entered the courtroom, Nelson asked Chauvin if he understood his constitutional right to not testify. He also asked Chauvin if he understood that if he did decide to testify that the prosecutors would have “broad latitude” in the questions they could ask him. Chauvin said he understood.
“I have advised you, and we have gone back and forth on the matter,” said Nelson, adding that he and Chauvin had a lengthy discussion the previous night. “That would be kind of an understatement right?”
“Yes, it is,” said Chauvin.
Nelson asked Chauvin if he’d made a decision.
“I will invoke my Fifth Amendment privilege today," Chauvin responded.
Had he testified, it might have helped present him in a more human light, perhaps by him expressing remorse. Much of what jurors saw of Chauvin was a man sitting quietly, without emotion, behind a mask in the courtroom — or video footage of him kneeling on Floyd.
But there were considerable risks. Prosecutors would have pressed Chauvin to know what was going through his mind during the nine-plus minutes that he had his knee pressed against Floyd’s neck. They also would have walked him, and jurors, through damaging evidence about police training and policies once again.
Chauvin did leave a clue to his mindset at the scene.
Prosecutors played footage earlier in the trial from Chauvin’s body camera showing a man criticizing the officer afterward for the way he restrained Floyd.
“That's one person's opinion,” Chauvin can be heard responding to the man on the video. “We gotta put force, gotta control this guy because he's a sizable guy. Looks like he's probably on something.”
They were the only remarks heard during the trial from an officer in an MPD uniform justifying the level of force used against Floyd.
4) 'The moment the life goes out of his body’
No witness seemed to hold jurors’ attention more than Dr. Martin Tobin.
Speaking in a deep, quiet Irish accent, the pulmonologist and breathing expert testified for the prosecution on April 8 that Floyd died from a low level of oxygen, due to “shallow breathing,” refuting defense arguments that Floyd was killed by drugs or underlying health problems.
Floyd was unable to get enough air into his body because he was placed in a prone position pinned to the street with his hands cuffed behind his back and Chauvin’s knees on his neck and back, Tobin told jurors.
At one point, the defense raised an objection because it appeared jurors were following so closely they were touching their necks and hypopharynxes along with Tobin as he offered a breathing anatomy lesson, explaining how pressure on the neck affects the ability to breathe.
In his analysis, Tobin said that Chauvin continued to apply his weight on Floyd for at least three minutes after there was zero oxygen left in his body. Watching the bystander video, Tobin identified 8:24:53 p.m. as the moment Floyd died.
He told the court: "That’s the moment the life goes out of his body."
5) ‘Mr. Chauvin’s heart was too small.’
Weeks of trial testimony revolved around a basic question: Who or what is responsible for Floyd’s death? The defense has pointed to Floyd’s health conditions and the drugs in his system. The prosecution has put the blame on Chauvin’s actions and his knee on Floyd’s neck.
Hennepin County Medical Examiner Andrew Baker ruled Floyd’s death a homicide last year, saying Floyd went into cardiopulmonary arrest as then-officer Chauvin kept his knee pressed on the neck of the prone, handcuffed man.
Baker's report also identified “hypertensive heart disease,” “fentanyl intoxication” and “recent methamphetamine use” as other “significant conditions.”
On the stand in early April, Baker stood by his findings and described Floyd’s health problems and the drugs in his system as contributing — not direct — causes of his death. He said Chauvin’s actions “tipped (Floyd) over the edge” from life to death.
The defense, though, hoping to sow doubt in jurors’ minds, continued to raise questions throughout the trial about whether Floyd was killed by his health conditions, including an enlarged heart, and not by anything Chauvin did to subdue him during the arrest.
On Monday, just before the jury got the case and deliberations began, prosecutor Jerry Blackwell appeared to be tired of the defense’s weekslong argument that Floyd’s heart, not Chauvin’s knee, was to blame.
“You were told, for example, that Mr. Floyd died because his heart was too big,” Blackwell told the jury. “The truth of the matter is that the reason George Floyd is dead is because Mr. Chauvin’s heart was too small.”
Who’s who: A look at the key players in the trial.
What we know about the jurors: The 12 jurors who reviewed the case include a chemist, a youth volunteer, a cardiac nurse and an IT professional.
Chauvin's lawyer outnumbered, but had help: A handful of attorneys appeared for the prosecution, compared to a single attorney to defend Derek Chauvin.
Legion of Chauvin prosecutors, each with own role: Viewers may have been struck by the array of prosecutors who took turns presenting their case. The choice of who does what was no accident.
George Floyd and his legacy
Remembering George Floyd, the man: Before he became a symbol in the fight for racial justice, friends say George Floyd was a “gentle giant” who sought a fresh start.
Making George Floyd Square: Here’s how the site of George Floyd’s killing — 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis — is being reshaped.
Rescuing the plywood — and memorializing a movement: Two Black women are leading the effort to preserve the murals painted on storefront boards in the Twin Cities.
Calls for change: Here’s what some activists tell MPR News about their experiences with race in Minnesota, why they march and what they hope for the future.
Historic verdict just one step toward ‘true justice,’ Minn. leaders say: Many of Minnesota’s leading Democrats said they'll commit to systematic change that addresses long-running racial disparities. Accountability in George Floyd’s killing, they said, is just the start.
Crowds cheer, celebrate after Chauvin convicted of murder and manslaughter: In downtown Minneapolis and at George Floyd Square, people hugged and wept as they heard the verdicts, drivers blared their horns and demonstrators waved signs.
Tears and relief sweep intersection where George Floyd died: After the verdicts were read, thunderous cheering filled the place where George Floyd was pinned beneath a police officer's knee nearly a year ago, begging for air and his mother. Many people wept. Some sobbed. (The Associated Press)
Crowds across U.S. react with joy, wariness to verdict in Floyd's death: Black Americans cheered, marched, hugged, waved signs and sang jubilantly in the streets. But they also tempered those celebrations with the heavy knowledge that Derek Chauvin's conviction was just a first, tiny step on the long road to address centuries of racist policing in a nation founded on slavery. (The Associated Press)
'We're all so relieved,' Biden tells Floyd family after verdict: The president said he hoped the verdict would give momentum to congressional police reform efforts. (The Associated Press)
Where the Chauvin verdict fits in the recent history of high-profile police killings: The guilty verdicts were far from guaranteed, as convictions of police officers are historically rare. (NPR)
NPR’s live blog: The latest news and updates.