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Derek Chauvin’s attorneys blame drugs, witnesses in George Floyd’s death

The murder trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin opened in Minneapolis with dramatic video of his fatal encounter with George Floyd. It showed Floyd pinned by Chauvin's knee on his neck - for nearly nine and a half minutes. Lawyers for the prosecution and defense began to lay out their cases, with the latter arguing drugs and health problems caused Floyd's death. Yamiche Alcindor reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The trial that's being watched around the world, the murder trial of former police Officer Derek Chauvin, got underway today.

    George Floyd's death touched off nationwide protests and a reckoning over racism and policing in America. Lawyers for the prosecution and the defense began to lay out their cases.

    Yamiche Alcindor has the story.

    And a warning. Because cell phone video was part of today's arguments, this report does contain graphic video of what happened to Mr. Floyd.

  • Jerry Blackwell:

    Nine-two-nine, the three most important numbers in the case, nine minutes and 29 seconds.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    This morning, that was Minnesota prosecutor Jerry Blackwell's main message. That, he said, was how long Derek Chauvin kneeled on the neck of George Floyd.

    In today's opening statements, Blackwell tried to paint a picture of excessive force by the former Minneapolis police officer. He showed nearly the entire length of the now infamous bystander cell phone video of the incident last May.

  • Man:

    He's not even resisting arrest right now.

  • Jerry Blackwell:

    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 up on his neck and his back, grinding and crushing him until the very breath — no, ladies and gentlemen, until the very life was squeezed out of him.

    You can believe your eyes that it's a homicide, it's murder.

  • Eric Nelson:

    The evidence is far greater than nine minutes and 29 seconds.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Meanwhile, Chauvin's defense attorney, Eric Nelson, focused much of his opening statement on what he believes caused Floyd's death.

  • Eric 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 throwing — flowing through his body, all of which acted to further compromise an already compromised heart.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Nelson also laid blame on the crowd of people who gathered around Chauvin and his fellow officers and who pleaded with Chauvin to remove his knee from Floyd's neck.

    Nelson said the concerned onlookers were a — quote — "threat" that diverted the officer's attention away from providing adequate care to Floyd.

  • Eric Nelson:

    Derek Chauvin did exactly what he had been trained to do over the course of his 19-year career.

    The use of force is not attractive, but it is a necessary component of policing.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The trial and the intense focus it's brought back to Minneapolis is expected to last about a month.

    To help us look at today's developments, we turn to Mary Moriarty. She is a former public defender in Hennepin County, where Minneapolis is located. She has been following the case closely and watched today's events.

    Thank you so much, Mary, for being here.

    What was the goal of the prosecution today, and how did playing that video of George Floyd pleading, saying that he could not breathe, how did that underscore their goal?

  • Mary Moriarty:

    It was interesting the way they chose to start out their opening, because they started out talking about public servants, police officers being public servants.

    And they had a picture of a Minneapolis Police Department badge, and it said "To protect and serve."

    And then they talked about this mantra that the Minneapolis Police Department has. And I wrote it down. It was "In your custody is in your care."

    And I thought that should be the theme, one of the themes that they talk about. So, in talking about the mantra, the logo, everything that police officers are supposed to do, that was such a juxtaposition to the video.

    And so, when I was watching the video, I couldn't help but thinking about all the things the Minneapolis Police Department is supposed to do. And so I think that they were pretty successful talking about use of force. They also said that Chief of Police Arradondo is going to testify that this was excessive use of force, it was not what Derek Chauvin was trained to do.

    So, I think they did a nice job of laying out their argument about what the evidence will look like. And they also had — they used visuals quite well. They had a picture of about eight medical experts that they're going to call. And so they used visuals in a way that I think will probably be very helpful to the jury.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    And what about the defense? What do you make of their approach as they try to create reasonable doubt here?

  • Mary Moriarty:

    You know, I was expecting something a little different from the defense, because when you hear and you see compelling evidence, the way the state laid it out, you have got to come back really hard.

    You have got to tell the jury what you have got. It isn't hide the ball here. It is, we have a story, too, this is what it is about, let me tell you that.

    And they did start out talking about reasonable doubt quite a bit, but the problem with that is, the jurors haven't heard any reasonable doubt. They don't really know what the defense story is. So, eventually, they did get there. They did talk about — or he did talk about the medical evidence here.

    Some of that may come back to bite him, because there was — he talked about the medical examiner, Dr. Andrew Baker, the Hennepin County medical examiner. And one of the things he said was, they even got — they didn't even like his work, necessarily. They got a second opinion.

    The Department of Justice asked the medical examiner of the Army to take a look at Dr. Baker's findings, and they agreed with all of it. So, there were some things that were taken out of context that I think may be damaging to the defense.

    But they did get across their theory that George Floyd died of an accidental overdose. Whether they can actually cast reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors remains to be seen.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Questions there, opening statements.

    We also heard, of course, from witnesses today. As someone who has tried murder cases, what stuck out to you?

  • Mary Moriarty:

    Well, the first one was that they had the 911 dispatcher.

    And what stuck out to me, is she was dispatching the call. She was dispatching other calls too. But there was a TV on the wall which was recording. There was a camera that was actually recording what happened out there. And she thought at one point that her — that the frame had frozen, that the TV had frozen, because of the length of time she saw the officers on top of George Floyd.

    She actually took the step of calling the sergeant to tell the sergeant that she thought something was terribly wrong. And she knew — she said, instinctually, she thought something was wrong. And when she — we actually her heard call, and what she said was: Call me a snitch, but I think you should get out there and look at what happened.

    And I — that was something that she had never done before.

    The other witness who was still on the stand who will come back tomorrow morning was — everybody did hear his voice in your clip. He was one of the bystanders who was yelling at the police officers. He is an expert in martial arts. He spent his life wrestling and participating in martial arts.

    So, it was strategic or lucky that the state called him. He is still on the stand. He will come back tomorrow morning. And so the jurors will get to hear him, after having have his words linger in their ears overnight, because he was a very compelling witness. He saw what happened, and he is one of those people that everybody in the world probably saw on that video, or on one of the videos, yelling and pleading and begging for the officers to help George Floyd.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, those are all really interesting and really important observations, a case that clearly the nation is watching.

    Thank you so much, Mary Moriarty.

  • Mary Moriarty:

    Thank you.

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