Chauvin Trial Lawyers Bring Everything Together in Closing Arguments on Floyd’s Death
For defense attorney Eric Nelson, left, and the prosecution, which includes Assistant Minnesota Attorney General Jerry Blackwell, right, closing arguments are the final opportunity to summarize the evidence and present a compelling narrative in the Derek Chauvin murder trial.
The livestreamed trial of ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd nears a conclusion Monday with two lawyers presenting their final, most compelling version of what happened on the street outside Cup Foods almost one year ago.
After 45 witnesses and 14 days of testimony in the Hennepin County District Court trial, special prosecutor Steve Schleicher and defense lawyer Eric Nelson will make their closing arguments, the final words the jurors hear from them before retreating behind closed doors to deliberate.
“The whole trial is about dropping the puzzle pieces in the middle of the courtroom and slowly putting them together,” St. Paul criminal and civil litigator A.L. Brown said. The closing argument is “putting them together how you see it.”
Mitchell Hamline School of Law Prof. Carolyn Grose said closing arguments are “where you get to say everything you’ve been hinting at. … The closing is where you tell the whole story without interruption.”
The prosecution, which goes first and gets a brief rebuttal by special prosecutor Jerry Blackwell after the defense, carries the bigger burden and has much more ground to cover. The prosecution’s job is to convince the jury of Chauvin’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt” on three charges: second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Nelson’s job is to convince at least one juror that there is reasonable doubt.
Mitchell Hamline School of Law Prof. Ted Sampsell-Jones said the state’s case was methodical and emotional, and he expects the closing to match. “They will walk through the three big pillars of evidence: the video and eyewitness testimony, the use-of-force experts and the medical experts,” he said.
Retired assistant Hennepin County attorney Judy Johnston, who delivered many closings in high-profile murder trials, said she always started by bringing the victim into the courtroom, projecting their image and saying, “This person should be with us today except this defendant made a series of decisions to take his life.”
She would then shift into the narrative of what happened before talking about the legal elements, but she didn’t want to focus solely on the law. “I wanted the jury to feel it from the victim’s perspective,” she said.
In a 1995 Hennepin County case, the victim was 3-year-old Adrian Brasch, whose stepfather slashed his skull and face with a knife. Johnston won a conviction after she explained in closing that defensive wounds on the boy’s hands indicated Adrian had crouched in a corner and held up his hands to fight off his attacker.
In closings, both sides can use any evidence from the trial. In their case against Chauvin, the prosecutors have shown extensive video from surveillance cameras, police body-worn cameras and the worldwide-seen footage shot by teenager Darnella Frazier from the sidewalk on her cellphone.
Three weeks ago in his opening statement, Blackwell previewed Chauvin’s videotaped response to Floyd’s pleas.
“You will see that he does not let up and that he does not get up,” Blackwell said.
Brown expects the video to be shown in the state’s closings.
“The most powerful piece of evidence will be that video,” Brown said. “There were protests across the country and across the world because of the video.”
University of Minnesota law Prof. Jon Lee said the video also helps the state underscore an element of the crimes — Chauvin knowingly using force on Floyd. “It will evoke a reaction in jurors,” Lee said. “You want to create a compelling picture. You want them to have the feeling that they have to convict this person.”
Sampsell-Jones said the state will make an emotional appeal, arguing that Floyd “was a human, and how he did not deserve this treatment — and how Chauvin’s conduct was outrageous and wholly unjustified.”
But the prosecution can’t rely on emotion alone. It has to talk about the law and define the terms.
Prosecutors will say that Chauvin caused Floyd’s death while assaulting him and is guilty of second-degree murder. They will say he’s guilty of third-degree murder because he caused Floyd’s death while perpetrating an eminently dangerous act on Floyd.
There’s no time limit, but the prosecution has to be careful not to go on too long. “If you kind of suggest this case is more complicated by doing that, there’s some risk,” retired Hennepin County Judge Kevin Burke said.
Brown said prosecutors have a tendency to revisit every detail.
“This is a time to argue, not recite,” he said. “Explain why you brought the damn case in the first place.”
For most of the jurors, this is probably their first case and “they want the ‘Law & Order’-type closing,” he said, referring to the television show. “And as much as you can, you ought to give it to them. … For crying out loud, give them a little drama, a little passion.”
The defense attorney’s job in the closing is much more focused.
“You try to isolate one or two issues and argue the evidence on those issues and make the claim they haven’t proved it,” longtime Minnesota defense lawyer Joe Friedberg said.
Brown said a defense lawyer wants jurors to think, “Something’s off,” or “the defendant, I don’t particularly like him, but something’s not adding up.”
In this case, Friedberg said he’d argue that testimony and evidence failed to show Floyd’s blood flow or airway was compromised so Chauvin’s force didn’t cause his death. He said he’d argue the excited crowd was a distraction and Chauvin had no idea Floyd had died.
Bradford Colbert, who teaches at Mitchell Hamline and is a part-time public defender, agreed the defense is likely to argue that Chauvin wasn’t indifferent to Floyd, but was distracted.
Colbert and Lee expect Nelson to argue there’s reasonable doubt about what killed Floyd.
“All he will need to show is there was not proof beyond a reasonable doubt on that particular element,” Lee said, adding that if Chauvin didn’t cause Floyd’s death, “you can’t convict.”
To reach a verdict of guilty or not guilty, all 12 jurors need to agree on a charge. One dissenting juror can result in a hung jury.
So while a global audience looks in on the closings via livestream, the lawyers will be speaking to an audience not visible to anyone outside the courtroom.
“The whole world is watching,” Grose said. “But the whole world is not deciding.”
This story is part of a collaboration with the Star Tribune through FRONTLINE’s Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.