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‘This Wasn’t Policing’: 6 Key Elements in Closing Arguments of Derek Chauvin Trial in George Floyd’s Death


Derek Chauvin

Closing arguments were held Monday in the murder trial of fired Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, 45, in the death of George Floyd, 46. As signaled throughout the trial, the state asserted that the defendant killed the victim by kneeling on his neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds during a fateful arrest on May 25, 2020.

“This wasn’t policing,” said prosecutor Steve Schleicher. “This was murder. The defendant is guilty of all three counts.”

Schleicher cited expert witnesses who said this was neither cardiac arrhythmia nor a heart attack, as well as a toxicologist who said this was not a drug overdose.

Defense lawyer Eric Nelson argued that his client was following training that day. This contradicted state’s witnesses, including Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo.

Focusing on that 9 minutes, 29 seconds left out important context from before the kneeling, Nelson said. The defense attorney maintained that Floyd died from a combination of issues, in particular drug and heart issues.

Nelson asserted that the stress of arrest was not a factor. The state, on the other hand, said that the defendant’s actions killed Floyd. Here are six key points covered in court on Monday.

1. What Did Police Know at the Time?

As oft reported, then-Minneapolis police officers Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng responded to a call at the Cup Foods store on May 25, 2020. Chauvin and Tou Thao followed soon after. Floyd was accused of using a counterfeit $20 bill. Officers tried to force him into a squad vehicle, but he maintained that he was claustrophobic. They could not get Floyd inside. Instead, cops switched to holding Floyd on the ground, putting him in the prone position while handcuffed. The longer Chauvin remained on Floyd’s neck, the more vocal bystanders became. They called out cops as the Floyd visibly became more and more unresponsive.

The events resulted in all four officers getting fired the following day. Thao, Lane, and Kueng are set for a separate trial on lesser charges in August.

Nelson maintains that Chauvin followed his training, and acted as a reasonable officer would under the circumstances. The circumstances were that the business requested help, Floyd was large (more than six feet tall), and Floyd was possibly under the influence of alcohol or something else. This was a code 3 (use of sirens; get there fast), and a priority 1 (the person is on the scene). The defendant is not guilty of a crime if he used force as authorized by law, the defense said. The standard is what facts the officer knew at the time he used force.

From the defense point of view, Chauvin would have arrived seeing Lane and Kueng trying to get Floyd into the vehicle. A reasonable officer would have seen active resistance, Nelson said. The defendant would have seen white foam in the man’s mouth. He would have noted Floyd’s size. He would have known that there were two rookies, who did not use enough force to put Floyd into the squad vehicle. Chauvin got involved in the struggle, as Floyd kicked out, almost knocking over Lane. He mentioned a 911 operator seeing the vehicle rocking back and forth through surveillance footage.

Nelson highlighted the unpredictability of human behavior, suggesting that officers would have been concerned about being in danger.

During rebuttal, prosecutor Jerry Blackwell dismissed Nelson’s use of the phrase “reasonable officer,” saying it was not a magic wand you apply to Chauvin.

2. Chauvin Was Driven By Ego, Prosecutors Said

Prosecutor Schleicher asserted that Chauvin refused to stop kneeling on Floyd’s neck because of “ego-driven pride.” The defendant was not going to do what the bystanders told him to do.

Chauvin “chose pride over police” that day, Schleicher said. He did not follow hundreds of hours of training, and did not perform CPR. Chauvin knew better, he just didn’t do better, Schleicher said.

The prosecutor said that the defendant ignored the policies of the department and the motto of the department: “to protect with courage, to serve with compassion.” No courage was shown, Schleicher said. All that was required was a little compassion.

He asked the jury to set aside the notion that it’s impossible for a police officer to do something like this.

“This is not an anti-police prosecution,” he said. “This is a pro-police prosecution.”

Schleicher highlighted the chief’s testimony that Chauvin’s kneeling violated use of force and de-escalation policies, and violated duty to render aid.

Citing expert testimony, Schleicher said that police did not train what Chauvin did to Floyd. He also highlighted testimony from Lt. Richard Zimmerman, the head of the Minneapolis police homicide division. The investigator testified he was never trained to kneel on the neck of a prone person who was handcuffed because doing so would constitute deadly force.

3. Floyd Was Terrified But Compliant, the State Said

Schleicher dismissed the idea that Floyd resisted police. The victim was “terrified” as officers approached him from both sides of his vehicle, and Lane pulled out a gun on him.

Floyd was compliant, the state said. He put his hands on the car steering wheel, stepped out, and submitted himself to be handcuffed. He sat on the sidewalk. He gave his name when asked, even spelling it.

“Where’s the resistance?” said Schleicher. “Where’s that?”

Floyd’s reluctance to get into the back of the vehicle was because he was big, and the back of the squad car was not. It looked like a little cage, Schleicher said.

The victim tried to explain that he had anxiety and claustrophobia, Schleicher said. When police took Floyd out of the vehicle, he said, “Thank you.”

Citing the police chief, Schleicher said the department was experienced in dealing with calls for people in crisis. Accordingly, the officers at the scene should have known that Floyd was not trying to escape. The problem was the back of the vehicle, as the victim explained over and over.

The state said a pivotal moment was when Lane asked Chauvin if they should put Floyd on his side. Chauvin said no, citing the victim’s size and the possibility of drug use.

The state maintained that Chauvin went overboard with Floyd. In their presentation, they worked to differentiate between a risk and a threat. Floyd’s size was merely a risk, said Schleicher. It was neither a crime, nor a threat. Being “on something” may be a risk, but it is not a threat, the prosecutor said.

4. The Bystanders

Both sides sought to emphasize certain points of view at the scene. Nelson, who said in opening statements that the crowd distracted officers away from Floyd, worked to highlight what Chauvin was thinking and doing. He wanted to present this as reasonable.

Throughout the state’s closings, however, prosecutors said that what happened to Floyd was so obviously horrible that bystanders got involved. One did not need to be a doctor to realize it. Even a 9-year-old girl told the defendant to get off of Floyd.

“That’s how simple it was,” said Blackwell.

Bystanders, including MMA-trained security guard Donald Williams and Minneapolis firefighter Genevieve Hansen, testified that they realized that Floyd was in dire straits and they tried to save him.

Nelson tried to dismantle their perspective, saying that while it was okay they were upset, their personal points-of-view and experiences shaped what they were seeing in a way that was inconsistent with the evidence.

Nelson suggested that Chauvin did not perform CPR on Floyd because, in those circumstances, it was too potentially dangerous to do so given the angry bystanders.

At the end, Blackwell maintained that the bystanders were powerless and never a danger to officers. They did not deserve to be called unruly, he said. They were not. They saw a defenseless, helpless man losing his life in front of them.

5. Cause of Death

The state asserted Floyd died from how police restrained him, with Chauvin on his neck, Kueng on his back, and Lane on his legs. His lungs were unable to expand, Schleicher said. He pushed his bare shoulder into the pavement to lift himself to give space to breathe.

The prosecutor took issue with the phrasing of a defense expert, who testified that drug intoxication could give someone “superhuman strength.”

There was no superhuman strength, Schleicher said. Floyd’s final words were “Please, I can’t breathe.”

But Chauvin did not help, said the prosecution. He continued to push down on Floyd, at times staring down the “horrified bystanders.”

The state acknowledged that meth and fentanyl was found in Floyd’s system after his death, but said that Chauvin’s actions were a substantial causal factor of Floyd’s death.

In closings, Nelson highlighted testimony from Dr. David Fowler, former Chief Medical Examiner of Maryland.

“In my opinion, Mr. Floyd had a sudden cardiac arrhythmia [abnormal beating of the heart], or cardiac arrhythmia, due to his atherosclerotic and hypertensive heart disease–you can write that down multiple different ways–during his restraint and subdual by the police,” the doctor said.

Significant contributory conditions included fentanyl and methamphetamine in Floyd’s system, exposure to carbon monoxide from vehicle exhaust, and paraganglioma [a tumor], Fowler said.

Citing testimony from expert pulmonologist Dr. Martin Tobin, Schleicher said that Floyd died of a lack of oxygen: It was not a cardiac event; it was the asphyxia. It was as if the victim were breathing through a straw while Chauvin was on him. He cited testimony from other doctors who dismissed the idea it was cardiac arrhythmia, a heart attack, or a drug overdose. Dr. Andrew Baker, who performed the autopsy, said it was cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual restraint and neck compression. Paraganglioma may cause headaches, he said.

Blackwell also took issue with the reference to vehicle exhaust, saying there was no testimony about the car being on. He suggested that if it was, it would have been Chauvin’s fault for putting Floyd’s head by the exhaust pipe.

In short, the prosecution argued there was no superseding cause that relieved Chauvin of liability. Floyd died because of the way police restrained him.

“Believe your eyes,” Schleicher said.

The victim would not have died if he were left on the side recovery position, he said.

Nelson maintained that the stress of the police restraint had nothing to do with the death. It was not the natural result of the defendant’s act. Nelson dismissed the state’s witnesses, saying their analysis flew in the face of common sense. Floyd, he said, died from a combination of issues, but not the police action.

There was no finding in the autopsy of certain injuries, including pressure applied to the back, injury to the neck, or soft tissue injuries, he said. He maintained that he was not suggesting Floyd could have had “superhuman strength” or died of a drug overdose, but the substance issue was a factor. It was not a character problem on Floyd’s part. Millions of Americans struggle with opioid use, Nelson said. But Floyd had a history of it, and he had a bad heart, as indicated by his “skyrocketing high” blood pressure in a similar traffic stop in 2019, the attorney said.

Nelson maintained it was “preposterous” that the possibility of a fentanyl overdose did not come into play in the testimony from the state’s experts.

6. The Charges 

Chauvin is charged with murder in the second degree, murder in the third degree, and manslaughter in the second degree. As part of the most serious charge, Schleicher said that they had to prove that Chauvin committed or attempted to commit assault in the third degree. In other words, they had to show that the defendant intended to inflict bodily harm. The state does not have to prove Chauvin intended to kill Floyd. It does not have to show the defendant planned on breaking the law. The state has to prove that Chauvin applied illicit and unreasonable force to Floyd on purpose. Read about the other charges here.

[Screengrab via Law&Crime Network]

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