Derek Chauvin Trial Opening Arguments Begin

Olivia Allery, staff writer & Danny Reinan, news editor
Protesters march through downtown Minneapolis the day before opening arguments begin in the Derek Chauvin trial, taken by Chad Davis on March 28, 2021

The nation has been waiting with bated breath to see the outcome of the trial of Derek Chauvin, the ex-Minneapolis police officer charged with the murder of George Floyd, in one of the most high-profile cases in recent history. This week, the processes leading up to the trial finally ended as the panel of 15 jurors was solidified, giving way to a heated set of initial arguments. Between the impassioned declarations of the defense and prosecution, the heartfelt testimonials from witnesses who saw Floyd’s death and the overarching, resonant callbacks to the 9:29 timing – the nine minutes and 29 seconds that Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck – the courtroom is progressing ever closer to laying down a verdict in this contentious case.

The first opening statement was from Prosecutor Jerry Blackwell, who spoke for nearly an hour, poring over the video footage of Floyd’s death. He broke down the footage into three parts – the four minutes and 45 seconds that Floyd called out for help, the 53 seconds that he flailed about in the throes of a seizure, and the three minutes and 51 seconds that he lay still with Chauvin’s knee still on his neck. Chauvin’s actions, Blackwell said, were in defiance to the Minneapolis Police Department’s (MPD) use of force policy, which states that force must be used to protect the public.

“You will learn that on May 25 of 2020, Mr. Derek Chauvin betrayed this badge when he used excessive and unreasonable force upon the body of Mr. George Floyd, that he put his knees upon his neck and his back, grinding and crushing him until the very breath, no, ladies and gentlemen, until the very life was squeezed out,” said Blackwell in his opening argument.

A major point of contention in the trial will be Floyd’s determined cause of death, which will elucidate whether or not his death can be ruled a murder. In his opening arguments, Blackwell reminded the court that the Hennepin county examiner had ruled Floyd’s death a homicide, specifically naming his restraint by Chauvin as the reason why his lungs stopped functioning. But he clarified for the court that the prosecution did not believe that his death was due to heart failure – if it was, it would have been instant.

“He died one breath at a time, over an extended period of time,” Blackwell explained.

Prosecutor Jerry Blackwell (left) and Defense Attorney Eric Nelson (right) presenting their opening arguments in the trial of Derek Chauvin, taken from the footage of the first day of the trial and edited by Danny Reinan

Defense Attorney Eric Nelson, who spoke for half an hour, disputed the heavy emphasis Chauvin placed on the 9:29 timing, stating that “the evidence is far greater than nine minutes and 29 seconds,” and that Chauvin’s use of force was justified.

“You will learn that Derek Chauvin did exactly what he was trained to do over the course of his 19-year career,” said Nelson in his opening argument. The use of force is not attractive but it is a necessary component of policing.”

Just as Blackwell placed heavy emphasis on Floyd’s cause of death and the findings from the Hennepin county examiner, Nelson presented his own evidence – namely a blood gas test, blood draw and traces of controlled substances found in a search of Floyd’s person – that, Nelson argued, indicated that Floyd’s cause of death was not from asphyxiation.

“What was Mr. Floyd’s actual cause of death?” said Nelson. “The evidence will show that Mr. Floyd died of a cardiac arrhythmia that occurred as a result of hypertension, his 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.”

These fiery arguments were followed up on by equally passionate testimonies from witnesses in the case. One such witness was Donald Williams II, a professional Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter who showed his expertise in his statements to the court. Williams’s testimony explained the type of choke hold Chauvin had on Floyd was known as the “blood choke,” which can make a person go unconscious.

Williams further explained that it appeared that, in a maneuver Williams called a “shimmy,” Chauvin had purposely shifted his weight multiple times to have a tighter hold on Floyd’s neck. When Williams saw this, he called 911.

“I did call the police on the police,” he said during the trial. “Because I believe I witnessed a murder.”

“I did call the police on the police because I believe I witnessed a murder.”

Witness Donald Williams II

This testimony was followed by Darnella Frazier, the teenager who took the viral video of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck. Frazier was forthcoming and vulnerable with the court about the deep impact that the experience of viewing Floyd’s death had on her.

“When I look at George Floyd, I look at my Dad, I look at my brothers, I look at my cousins, and my uncles, because they are all Black,” Frazier told the court through tears. “I have a Black father, I have a Black brother, I have Black friends… And I look at that, and I look at how that could have been one of them. It’s been nights I stayed up, apologizing and apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more and not physically interacting… Not saving his life. It’s not what I should have done. It’s what [Chauvin] should have done.”

Moreover, Frazier was struck by Chauvin’s form as he kneeled on Floyd’s neck, describing Chauvin as having a “cold look, heartless.” 

Members of the national guard stationed outside the Hennepin County Government Center, taken by Chad Davis on March 29, 2021.

“It didn’t seem like he cared.” Frazier said.

Chauvin’s trial is expected to take around a month, after which 12 jurors and two backup jurors will determine whether or not Chauvin will be convicted of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter.

This is an ongoing story; future updates will be posted to The Echo as Derek Chauvin’s trial continues.