Takeaways From the Closing Arguments of the Derek Chauvin Trial 1

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After three weeks of testimony from 45 witnesses, the lawyers gave their concluding arguments on Monday in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged with murdering George Floyd.

Judge Peter A. Cahill started the day with instructions for the jury, whose task it is to determine whether Mr. Chauvin is guilty of the charges of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter. For second-degree murder, the most serious charge, the state has to prove that Mr. Chauvin assaulted Mr. Floyd and that the assault was a substantial factor in his death.

Prosecutors do not have to prove that he intended to kill Mr. Floyd.

Arguments began with a commanding rebuke of the defense’s case from one of the prosecutors, Steve Schleicher. He called several of the defense’s points “nonsense” and said that Mr. Chauvin betrayed his oath as a police officer.

For his part, Eric J. Nelson, Mr. Chauvin’s lawyer, asked jurors to take in the totality of the evidence, and criticized the state for dismissing other possible contributing factors in Mr. Floyd’s death, including heart problems and drug use.

Here are some key takeaways.

  • Mr. Schleicher began with a chilling description of the arrest, setting the tone for his primary argument: That jurors should “believe their eyes” when they watch the videos of Mr. Floyd being pinned to the ground for nine minutes and 29 seconds. Mr. Schleicher talked about the “unyielding pavement,” and what he believed to be Mr. Floyd’s desperate struggle to lift his chest and fill his lungs with air. He reminded jurors of Mr. Floyd’s last words, “Please, I can’t breathe.”

  • He reinforced what Mr. Floyd’s brother and former girlfriend told the jury: That Mr. Floyd was loved by many people who knew him, that he loved his mother, that he was more than the symbol he became in death. He died “surrounded by strangers,” Mr. Schleicher said — pinned between the pavement and the knee of Mr. Chauvin. “Not a familiar face to say his final words,” Mr. Schleicher said. “But he did say them to someone — he said them to someone who he did not know by name, but he knew him from the uniform he wore and the badge he wore, and he called him ‘Mr. Officer.’”

  • A primary focus of the prosecution was dismissing some of the arguments of the defense. “You’re not required to accept nonsense,” Mr. Schleicher told jurors, pointing to the opinion offered by a defense witness that Mr. Chauvin’s restraint of Mr. Floyd did not constitute use of force, and that the exhaust from the tailpipe of a police cruiser might have contributed to Mr. Floyd’s death. “Use your common sense,” Mr. Schleicher said. “Believe your eyes. What you saw, you saw.”

  • Mr. Nelson focused largely on whether Mr. Chauvin acted the way a reasonable police officer would. He reinforced ideas that he had proposed during the three weeks of witness testimony, including that suspects who do not appear to be dangerous can quickly become so. “A reasonable police officer understands the intensity of the struggle,” he said, pointing out how difficult it was for Mr. Chauvin and other officers to put Mr. Floyd into the back of a police cruiser.

  • He also highlighted the moment that Mr. Floyd took his last breath, showing those few seconds from the vantage point of a security camera. At that moment, Mr. Nelson said, a crowd of angry bystanders, who could also pose a threat to officers, was becoming louder and louder, and that Mr. Chauvin pulled a can of mace from his belt — a sign that he felt he was in danger. “All of the evidence shows that Mr. Chauvin thought he was following his training,” he said.

  • Mr. Nelson hit on the issue of “intent,” asking jurors to consider whether Mr. Chauvin would have purposefully caused unlawful harm to Mr. Floyd. Noting that several body-worn cameras were recording the incident, along with the cellphones of bystanders, Mr. Nelson asked jurors why a person would purposefully break the rules when they knew they were being filmed and that their actions would be reviewed by their supervisors.

  • On Mr. Floyd’s cause of death, Mr. Nelson said it was “preposterous” for the state and several of its witnesses to have asked jurors to ignore a host of possible contributing factors, including Mr. Floyd’s pre-existing heart problems and drug use. He insisted that the defense’s focus on Mr. Floyd’s drug use was not an attack on his character, but was prompted by the issue’s medical significance.

  • Jerry Blackwell, another prosecutor, responded to the defense by continuing to urge jurors to follow “common sense,” saying that even a 9-year-old girl who testified earlier in the trial could see that Mr. Chauvin was hurting Mr. Floyd.

  • Using a chart that showed a dot for every day that Mr. Floyd was alive, Mr. Blackwell spoke of how unlikely it would be that Mr. Floyd would happen to die on May 25, if not for Mr. Chauvin’s use of force. Jurors must decide whether Mr. Chauvin’s restraint was a “substantial factor” in Mr. Floyd’s death, not whether it was the sole factor.

  • Mr. Blackwell ended his rebuttal by reminding jurors that some witnesses had said Mr. Floyd died because his heart was too big. “Now, having seen all the evidence, having heard all the evidence, you know the truth,” he said. “The truth of the matter is that the reason George Floyd is dead is because Mr. Chauvin’s heart was too small.