After two weeks of jury selection and three weeks of witness and expert testimony, the murder trial of Derek Chauvin is heading into closing arguments Monday. And the stakes are incredibly high.
On the final day before deliberations begin, both sides are teeing up to make their final pitch to jurors who’ll decide to either convict or exonerate the white former Minneapolis police officer accused of killing George Floyd when he kneeled on his neck for over nine minutes last May.
With the trial available for all to see, it’s been one of the most-watched in recent history, driving major boosts in cable viewership. And as public attention intensifies this week leading up to a possible verdict by week’s end, major cities are bracing for protests and even violence if Chauvin is acquitted: New York City leaders signaled they’ve been in touch with Minnesota officials in preparation for the final verdict, Los Angeles law enforcement say they’re ready to call in the National Guard, and Minneapolis students will go back to remote learning as a public safety measure when the jury begins sequestration.
With this case fueling a national reckoning over police brutality, it represents so much more than Chauvin’s guilt or innocence: Americans will see if the country is ready to hold police officers accountable in the slayings of Black and brown civilians, or whether the status quo remains as the criminal justice system lets yet another disgraced cop walk free.
Chauvin’s defense called just seven witnesses over two days, resting their case minutes after Chauvin declared he wouldn’t take the stand to tell his side of the fatal arrest that set off a summer of protests in the U.S and abroad last year. Attorney Eric Nelson spent that time arguing that it was Floyd’s burgeoning health issues caused by heart disease, carbon monoxide inhalation, battle with opioid addiction, and the 11 nanograms of fentanyl found in his system that caused his death.
The defense’s arguments were markedly shorter than their state counterparts’, which Minneapolis attorney Andrew Wilson said is to be expected.
“I think it fits in the theory of the defense for their arguments to be brief,” he said. “The state has the money, the state has the individuals working for it and the professionals and the sheer amount of resources that the defense just doesn’t have.”
Meanwhile, the prosecution spent more than 10 days calling bystanders, witnesses, medical personnel, and law enforcement experts to help convince the jury, comprised of six white and six non-white Minnesotans, that Chauvin’s actions not only caused Floyd death, but the officer intended to cause harm when he kneeled on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes.
Daniel Medwed, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University’s School of Law, said the state has had a much easier time making their case considering the magnitude of their central piece of evidence: video of Floyd’s death.
“It's often said a picture's worth 1000 words,” he told VICE News. “And with that video, what are nine minutes and 29 seconds worth of words worth?”
Here’s what we can expect when closing arguments begin.
What to expect from the prosecution
Medwed told VICE News that prosecutors are not likely to once again conjure up images of Floyd’s graphic arrest over the use of a counterfeit $20 at a South Minneapolis convenience store last May 25. They’ll focus their attention elsewhere.
“The goal for the prosecution is to show there's no reasonable doubt and that the defense is grasping at straws,” he said. “They're going to emphasize that very powerful medical testimony, from the medical examiner, EMT’s and experts that suggests that even a healthy person would have died.”
The shocking nature of Chauvin’s actions is something that prosecutors brought up repeatedly during the trial. Several of their witnesses said they called the cops on Chauvin and his three colleagues, including their very first, a 911 dispatcher who watched Floyd’s death through a nearby police camera. Donald Williams, a Black martial artist who tried to tell Chauvin that his restraint was a deadly one, told jurors he did the same.
“They're just going to walk through step by step how Chauvin acted with depraved indifference, extreme recklessness, and caused George Floyd's death,” he explained.
Medwed said to expect them to remind jurors of the numerous police officers who demolished the fabled “blue wall of silence” by testifying and condemning Chauvin’s actions as malicious.
“I think that prosecutors will also emphasize George Floyd as a human, as a victim, and as someone who deserves justice,” Medwed said.
And they’ll have no shortage of ways to do so, as prosecutors came away with some of the trial’s most powerful moments: An off-duty firefighter told jurors through tears that she was desperate to help the dying man as cops rebuffed her attempts to intervene with medical help; Two high school students who were part of the crowd of onlookers shared that Floyd’s death still haunts them; a Black third-grade teacher cried uncontrollably rewatching footage of Floyd cry out for his deceased mother.
Prosecutors also called on Floyd’s girlfriend and younger brother to give jurors a better idea of who Floyd was throughout his life: a loving family man who played sports with kids in the neighborhood.
Despite the emotional highs of the trial at their disposal, Medwed said not to expect anything too flashy from prosecutors.
“I think it will be a more measured methodical and powerful closing argument than a lot of people might think,” Medwed concluded. “I wouldn’t expect fire and brimstone or anything like that.”
What to expect from the defense
Wilson, a partner at Wilson Criminal Defense in Minneapolis, told VICE News that people should expect two major things from Nelson’s closing arguments. First, that Chauvin’s actions were not a substantial part of Floyd’s death.
“Now substantial cause doesn't mean only cause, which is a pretty easy rebuttal for the state,” Wilson, a former colleague of defense attorney Nelson during his tenure at the Minnesota firm Halberg Criminal Defense said. “But I think that the defense closing argument is going to heavily revolve around that other causes of death theory. The drug use. The medical history. All of the other potential causes.”
Nelson will likely refer to the testimony of Dr. David Fowler, a career forensic pathologist who argued that Floyd’s enlarged heart and hypertension, prior use of methamphetamine and fentanyl, and carbon monoxide emissions from the vehicle near Floyd at the time of his arrest played a significant role in his death. Though Fowler is currently being sued over the death of a Black Maryland teen who died in a similar manner to Floyd while in police custody, his testimony offered the defense a solid expert amid several less-convincing witnesses.
Wilson also said to expect Nelson to address the issue of the large crowd seen berating Chauvin in video of Floyd’s arrest.
“I think another one of Eric's focal points are that any excessive force was in part due to actions that were beyond law enforcement's control,” Wilson said. “Their focus on the crowd diverted attention from what the officers were doing and they were reacting based on the context and the circumstances that they were presented.”
Chauvin is charged with second- and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. If convicted, he faces up to 65 years in prison. Jury deliberation is expected to begin as early as today.