Yes, George Floyd Had Fentanyl in His System. No, It Didn’t Kill Him, Prosecutors Say.

Prosecutors admitted that Floyd had fentanyl in his system at the time of his arrest. But that’s not what killed him, they said.
From left to right: Defense attorney Eric Nelson speaks during opening statements, Monday, March 29, 2021, in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, in the May 25, 2020, death of George Floyd at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Min

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During opening arguments in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer accused of murdering George Floyd, attorneys for both sides made it clear that how, exactly, the 46-year-old Black man died will be their main focus. 

“That will ultimately be another significant battle in this trial: What was Mr. Floyd’s actual cause of death?” Chauvin’s defense attorney Eric Nelson said Monday morning. 

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The prosecution, which laid out its argument first, will stick closely to the findings of the medical examiner’s report: that Floyd died by homicide, or the actions caused by another. Special prosecutor Jerry Blackwell admitted that Floyd did have a heart condition and had drugs in his system at the time of his death—but neither caused his heart to stop as Chauvin kneeled on him for more than nine minutes and repeatedly ignored his cries for help. 

“We plan to prove to you that he’s anything other than innocent,” Blackwell told the jury.

The defense, on the other hand, plans to refute that point with their own experts. During his opening statement, Nelson detailed how Floyd being under the influence of drugs as well as his preexisting conditions culminated in his death at the time of his arrest. He was arrested the evening of May 25 last year for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill at a convenience store in South Minneapolis.

Here’s how both prosecutors and the defense made their case during the opening moments of the trial.

“It was homicide”

Blackwell spent just under an hour delivering his opening statement on behalf of the state. And he spent most of that time referring to the many signals that Floyd died of a lack of oxygen.

Blackwell started by playing bystander footage that shows Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck as he repeatedly cries out “I can’t breathe” and asks for help. Blackwell then explained some of the medical information happening in the bystander video, like the involuntary movements made by Floyd once he’s no longer responsive, as well as his apparent struggle to breathe. 

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“You’re going to learn that those sporadic movements matter greatly in this case, because what they reflect [is] Mr. Floyd is no longer breathing when he’s making these movements,” he said. “You will learn about something, in this case, called an anoxic seizure. It is the body’s automatic reflex when breathing has stopped due to oxygen deprivation.”

He finally points out that even as Floyd’s body reacted to the restraint, Chauvin still kept pressing his knee on Floyd.

“Mr. Chauvin continues on as he had, knee on the neck, knee on the back, as you see he does not let up, that he does not get up,” Blackwell said. “During this period of time, you will learn that Mr. Chauvin is told that they can’t even find a pulse of Mr. Floyd. He’s told that twice.”

In pretrial documents, the defense suggested they’d try to pin Floyd’s death on his health, including his drug use, and Blackwell made sure to address it. He admitted that Floyd had 11 nanograms of fentanyl in his system at the time of his death—but because of the tolerance he’d built up from prolonged drug use, that wouldn’t be enough for a fatal overdose, as Chauvin’s defense has said. 

Floyd’s death, Blackwell said, also didn’t look like anything like an overdose. And the report from Dr. Andrew Baker, the Hennepin County Medical Examiner, also specifically noted that Floyd’s death wasn’t because of drugs. 

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“Opioids are tranquilizers. When a person dies of opioid overdose, what they look like first and foremost is sleep, in a stupor,” Blackwell said, referring to Floyd’s cries for compassion during the arrest. “They are not screaming for their lives. They’re not calling for their mothers. They’re not begging, “Please, please, I can’t breathe.”

Blackwell also noted Floyd’s death didn’t particularly look like a fatal arrhythmia, as the defense has said. In that case, Floyd would have died suddenly. Instead, he was gasping for air, which Blackwell attributed to a lack of oxygen. 

“They [the medical examiners] determined, among these manners of death, that it wasn’t accidental, it wasn’t undetermined, it wasn’t suicide, it was homicide,” Blackwell said. 

“Two sides to a story”

During his 20-minute opening statement, Chauvin’s attorney, Nelson, explained that the former officer acted exactly as he was trained—Nelson called the use of force “not attractive” but “a necessary component of policing.”

He also attempted to downplay one of the key pieces of evidence: the video of Floyd’s death.

“There are always two sides to a story,” Nelson told the jury Monday. “The evidence is far greater than 9 minutes and 29 seconds.” 

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Nelson also kept returning to the state of Floyd’s health at the time of his death. He noted that additional testimony from experts and people who encountered Floyd before the police did would help him build out his case.

“The evidence will show that Mr. Floyd died of cardiac arrhythmia that occurred as a result of hypertension, coronary disease, the ingestion of methamphetamine and fentanyl, and the adrenaline flowing through his body, all of which acted to further compromise an already compromised heart," he said.

Nelson explained that Floyd had what’s called a paraganglioma, a tumor in his heart that caused an excess of adrenaline. That, plus the drugs in his system, combined with his preexisting hypertension, could have killed him, according to Nelson.

“Dr. Baker found none of what are referred to as the telltale signs of asphyxiation,” Nelson said. “There were no bruises to Mr. Floyd’s neck, either on his skin or after peeling his skin back to the muscles beneath. There’s no petechial hemorrhaging. There was no evidence that Mr. Floyd’s airflow was restricted and [Baker] did not determine it to be a positional or mechanical asphyxial death.”

The opening statements follow three weeks of jury selection, which ended in six white and six non-white jurors being chosen. Chauvin is facing second- and third-degree murder charges, as well as a second-degree manslaughter charge, and faces up to 65 years in prison. The trial is expected to last another two to four weeks.

Christina Sterbenz contributed to this report.