Believe what you saw. “This wasn’t policing. This was murder,” prosecutor Steve Schleicher told jurors during closing arguments in the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the killing of George Floyd.
Believe what you saw. During this trial, the blue wall crumbled, as police officers, including the chief of the Minneapolis Police department, testified against Chauvin. That’s powerful. But even more powerful is the video of Chauvin — his hands in his pockets and his face devoid of expression — kneeling on Floyd’s neck for an excruciating 9 minutes and 29 seconds. Because of that video, taken by a bystander, the defendant, who invoked his Fifth Amendment right and did not testify, became the star witness in his own trial.
Believe what you saw. As Schleicher reminded the jury, what jurors saw was Chauvin kneeling as Floyd begs for air and calls for his late mother. He kneels as horrified onlookers cry out for him to stop. He kneels as Floyd takes his last breath and, still, Chauvin doesn’t move. “You can believe your own eyes. . . . It’s what you felt in your gut . . . the defendant is guilty,” said Schleicher.
Watching that video is a gut punch, one that should lead a reasonable person to conclude that the force Chauvin used was unreasonable, excessive, and disproportionate to the situation. Will it? All the defense has to do is convince one juror that they didn’t see what they think they saw; or that there’s more to see. Defense lawyer Eric Nelson tried to make that case in a closing argument that meandered from what it takes to bake chocolate chip cookies — flour, sugar, and butter — to what it takes to make a murder case against his client.
The 9-minute-and-29-second video doesn’t tell the whole story, Nelson told the jury. To that end, he presented police camera footage showing that Floyd struggled with officers before Chauvin arrived on the scene. What Chauvin did afterward was what any “reasonable” police officer would do, said Nelson. People don’t like being arrested, and often say they can’t breathe, he said. But a reasonable police officer also knows that if you can talk, you can breathe, and Floyd was talking, Nelson said. Being prone on the street in itself isn’t dangerous, Nelson said; people are prone all the time when sleeping and sunbathing. Chauvin could have used even more force, but didn’t. Besides, Chauvin knew he was being recorded. So he could not have intended to kill Floyd. The perspective of witnesses is also irrelevant, said Nelson. All that matters is what Chauvin perceived as the risk from Floyd and an increasingly hostile crowd.
Believe what you saw. It’s true, Floyd was upset at being shoved into the back of a small police car after he told police he was claustrophobic. But, as prosecutors asked, given his anxiety, why did police persist with that course of action? Once he was handcuffed, why didn’t they roll him on his side? Why did Chauvin ignore his cries for help and air? Why didn’t Chauvin show the slightest bit of compassion toward another human who was suffering?
Because Chauvin didn’t see George Perry Floyd Jr., born in Fayetteville, N.C., in 1973. He didn’t see a man who loved his mother, and still mourned her death. He saw “a sizable guy” who was “probably on something.” He saw someone to be subdued and controlled, not someone to be helped or comforted. When he looked at the gathering crowd, he didn’t see other humans who were concerned about Floyd’s plight. He saw civilians he needed to dominate and show who was boss. So he kept kneeling on Floyd, and he killed him.
As Schleicher told the jury, those random witnesses to Floyd’s death had “all converged by fate” at one moment in time to witness “a shocking abuse of authority.” There was nothing they could do but take videos of what was happening. They were powerless beyond that. They brought those “precious recordings” to the courtroom. “They testified and bore witness to what they saw . . . so you could see. They gave them to you,” he said.
The crowd that gathered at the scene knew what they saw. Now it’s up to the jury to believe it too.