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What We Learned From Day 1 Of The Chauvin Trial

People gather during a demonstration outside the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis on Monday as opening statements were given in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, charged in the killing of George Floyd.
Stephen Maturen
Getty Images
People gather during a demonstration outside the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis on Monday as opening statements were given in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, charged in the killing of George Floyd.

Eight minutes and 46 seconds. That's the amount of time that former police officer Derek Chauvin was believed to have held his knee on George Floyd's neck.

In the aftermath of Floyd's death, 8:46 became part of the rallying cry in protests around the world. It appeared on signs. People chanted it. They held vigils and stayed quiet for 8 minutes and 46 seconds to mark Floyd's death.

In Day 1 of Chauvin's trial on Monday, prosecutors said the former Minneapolis police officer actually held his knee on Floyd for 9 minutes and 29 seconds — some 43 seconds longer than initially reported.

There are two central questions in this murder trial: What exactly killed George Floyd, and did Chauvin use excessive force?

Prosecutors say Chauvin's actions killed Floyd, while the defense has argued that Floyd's health issues and drug use caused him to die from a cardiac arrhythmia.

One key piece of evidence that could go a long way in answering those two questions is the video that prosecuting attorney Jerry Blackwell showed the court on Monday of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd's neck. Blackwell told jurors the video is proof Chauvin used excessive force.

Charles Coleman Jr., a civil rights lawyer and former prosecutor, says the video is damning evidence.

"The defense knew that going in," says Coleman. "The prosecution knew that, of course. And that's going to be something that they hammer home to try to keep this as simple and straightforward for the jury as possible."

Coleman spoke to Morning Edition on Tuesday about the first day of Chauvin's trial and what the early testimony may mean for the direction of the case. Here are excerpts of the conversation, edited in parts for clarity and length.

Interview Highlights

How far do you think the video of Floyd's arrest goes to proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Chauvin killed Floyd?

Well, I think just from a human sensibility standpoint, the video itself is so significant and so powerful that it can't help but to have a huge impression on the jury. I mean, this is a video which struck at the core of our humanity in such a way that it prompted protests and reaction throughout the world. And so when you showed that video in court, what you're going to see — and what you did see — was something that I think you can't ignore. So regardless of what the law says from the judge and regardless of what the facts are found to be by the jury, there can be very little argument that that video itself is going to definitely have a huge impression on this trial.

The defense, for its part, is arguing that Chauvin and the other officers were distracted by the crowd that was growing there after Floyd was arrested and then pinned to the ground. Can you speak to the strategy there?

Well, what they're trying to do right there is basically put the jury in the mindset of the police officers who were responsible for responding to that dispatch call. What they're trying to do is humanize them. ... They're trying to create reasonable doubt and they're basically not left with a bunch to work with. So it's not surprising to me to see them throw these other things in the mix. I mean, they are basically going to try to argue that this was not improper police procedure. And then I'm sure you will see at some point the defense make an argument that, oh, well, you know, Derek Chauvin wasn't perfect, but he wasn't using excessive force. And I think that the issue of the officers being distracted by the crowd, or that argument, is one that comes into the whole well, they're not perfect, this is something that is essentially, you know, a function of human error. I don't know how well that is going to play with the jury, but I do know that all of these different arguments that they are trying to advance are essentially a function of just any method that they can use to try and create reasonable doubt in the mind of those jurors.

Another way they're going to do that is to talk about the drugs that were found in George Floyd's system — traces of fentanyl and recent methamphetamine use. Is that going to be complicated for the prosecution?

There may be some complications there. I think the prosecution is likely going to have to call a medical expert in terms of being able to establish clearly what the cause of death was. I think, you know, to the extent that the defense is able to, they're going to try to make an argument that perhaps were those drugs, traces of those drugs [not] in Mr. Floyd's system, that he may have been able to withstand the pressure that was being placed on his neck, or perhaps he would not have been as resistant, even though there's now been testimony that he was not resisting. ... In any event, it is going to be something that the defense has to bring up and the prosecution has to figure out how they respond.

What conclusion did the prosecution want the jury to draw from the testimony of 911 dispatcher Jena Scurry, who told the court about the concern she felt while watching live video on her monitor of officers kneeling on top of Floyd.

That this was unusual, that this was not something that was normal, that even for a dispatch officer or dispatcher representative, that this was not something that they were used to seeing and it was so bad and egregious that they wanted to actually phone it in because something about this did not feel normal or right.

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Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.