Grown men, dying on a foreign battlefield, will call for their mothers.
A grown Black man, dying on the urban battlefield of an American city, cried for his mother too.
Derek Chauvin, a white cop, paid no mind. Nor to pleadings for breath. Nor sobs of pain. Nor howls of terror. Nor the entreaties of bystanders.
And the life of George Floyd flowed out of his body, with an officer’s knee on his neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds.
There was rage in the streets after the 46-year-old expired, on May 25, 2020, the entire tragedy captured by civilian phone video — and the officer’s own body camera. A metropolis literally burned with outrage. Protests ignited across the country.
The world would see it, Floyd’s existence extinguished.
“Believe your eyes,” state prosecutor Steve Schleicher urged a jury on Monday, during closing arguments in a downtown Minneapolis courtroom, in a building ringed with barbed wire and surrounded by National Guard armed troops.
“This case is exactly what you thought when you saw it first, when you saw that video.”
A male suspected of passing a counterfeit $20 bill, begging for mercy, imploring Chauvin to remove his knee from his neck and his shoulder, allow his lungs to suck in air, as he was pinned to the ground, torso compressed, brain and heart starved of oxygen, court heard. Calling for his mother — dead two years — with his final breaths.
A flagrant act of illegal force, applied with the intent to cause harm and resulting in death, the prosecution argued.
“This wasn’t policing; this was murder,” said Schleicher, words dripping with disdain.
No, this was reasonable use of force, countered the defence, a cop behaving in that specific situation as any “reasonable officer” would, using the training he’d received and experience from 19 years on the force.
“In this case, the totality of the circumstances that were known to a reasonable police officer in the precise moment the force was used demonstrates that this was an authorized use of force, as unattractive as it may be,” asserted Eric Nelson. “And this is reasonable doubt.”
He only needs one. He only needs to plant doubt in one jurist’s mind. He only needs one juror to cleave to that kernel of doubt in the deliberation room for a hung jury.
The racially diverse jury filed out at 4 p.m. After viewing the videos — different footage from different angles, repeatedly — they should surely be able to come back with a verdict within, oh, an hour.
But this is an ex-cop on trial — Chauvin fired from the Minneapolis Police Department, along with three other officers who were on the scene (they will be tried on less severe charges this summer) — and those who wear a badge historically enjoy qualified immunity: a judicially created doctrine that shields law enforcement from accountability, the threshold of proof routinely applied to anybody else, and lawsuits.
That is the shadow falling across this trial. Will they?
Clearly, getting over that conceptual hump was front of mind for the prosecution. Schleicher spent a considerable chunk of time — his closing address nearly two hours long — addressing it.
“It may be hard for any of you to imagine a police officer doing something like this. Imagining a policing officer committing a crime might be the most difficult thing you have to set aside because that’s just not the way we think of police officers.
“We trust the police. We trust the police to help us. We believe the police are going to respond to our call for help.”
Schleicher strained mightily to make this trial about Derek Chauvin, regardless of the turmoil and racial reckoning beyond the courtroom, triggered by the death of Floyd, against the background of all the other Black men who’ve died at the hands of law enforcement and amidst the fury of yet another Black male, Daunte Wright, 20, shot and killed in a Minneapolis suburb a week ago by a veteran officer who, according to her police chief, mistakenly fired her gun when intending to deploy her Taser.
“Policing is a most notable profession,” said Schleicher. “It is. It is. To be very clear, this case is called the State of Minnesota versus Derek Chauvin. This case is not called the State of Minnesota versus the police.
“Make no mistake. This is not a prosecution of the police. It is a prosecution of the defendant. There’s nothing worse for good police than a bad police. Who doesn’t follow the rules, who doesn’t follow procedure, who doesn’t follow training. Who ignores the policies of the department, the motto of the department: to protect with courage, to serve with compassion.”
Sanctity of life and protection of the public are cornerstones of the Minneapolis Police Department, Schleicher continued. “The defendant, he didn’t do that, because that day his badge just wasn’t in the right place.
“You need to set aside the notion that it’s impossible for a police officer to do something like this. He’s not on trial for who he is, he’s on trial for what he did.”
It was particularly poignant when Schleicher recited Floyd’s own words to demonstrate the victim’s respect for police.
“He called him Mr. Officer … He asked for help with his very last breath. But Mr. Officer did not help him. He stayed on top of him, continuing to push him down, to grind his knee, to twist (Floyd’s) hands and twist his fingers, into the handcuffs that bound him, looking at him, staring down at times that horrified bystanders who had gathered and watched this unfold.”
Chauvin did not provide medical aid or perform CPR, even when another officer pointed out that Floyd had stopped breathing, had no pulse. Chauvin did not turn the manacled Floyd onto the side position, which police are taught to use, precisely to prevent asphyxiation, after a suspect has been subdued. Chauvin did not ease pressure on Floyd, permitting the man’s lungs to expand, even as an ambulance arrived.
Chauvin’s own police chief testified against him, an extraordinary rejection of the thin blue line.
Nelson exploited the same apparently damning videos to mount an opposing narrative, accusing the prosecution of using snippets and screen shots to advance their case rather than the totality of the evidence. “Start from the point of the presumption of innocence,” he urged the jury, “and see how far the state can get. I submit to you that the state has failed to prove this case beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The defence had argued throughout that Floyd died from a combination of factors, including drug use, pre-existing cardiovascular disease, an underlying heart condition, hypertension, stress from his original struggle with officers — as they first put him in the back of a police cruiser — excited delirium (which is not a recognized medical condition but often used by police to retroactively justify their actions), even potential carbon monoxide poisoning from exhaust fumes from the police cars.
“It’s nonsense to suggest that none of these other factors had any role,” said Nelson, in a closing address that extended more than two and a half hours. “That is not reasonable.”
The prosecution insisted that Floyd died of cardiac arrest, resulting from asphyxia — deprivation of oxygen — directly caused by Chauvin using excessive force, crushing the life out of Floyd.
Chauvin, 45, has pleaded not guilty to charges of second-degree murder, which requires prosecutors to prove he intended to harm Floyd, but not that he intended to kill him; third-degree murder, which requires proof that Chauvin’s actions were “eminently dangerous” and done with indifference to life; and second-degree manslaughter, which requires jurors to believe that he caused Floyd’s death through negligence and consciously took the risk of causing severe injury or death.
Chauvin did not testify in his own defence.
Nelson argued Chauvin didn’t provide medical aid — a forensic pathologist had testified Floyd might have survived if he’d received immediate assistance — in part because he was distracted by a braying crowd, even though there were only about a dozen bystanders, hardly a mob. Further, Nelson said Chauvin had been distracted by an off-duty firefighter who stepped near him at the point that he, Chauvin, pulled out mace — tacitly blaming that firefighter, who’d appeared as a prosecution witness, palpably distressed when recounting how she’d been prevented from helping Floyd.
According to a pool reporter, one of the jurors — a cardiac nurse — appeared visibly skeptical when Nelson tried to mitigate Chauvin’s responsibility for Floyd’s deteriorating physical condition.
Martin Tobin, a lung and critical care doctor who testified for the prosecution, identified what he said was the exact moment that Floyd died: three minutes before Chauvin removed his knee.
“You can see his eyes,” Tobin had told court, reviewing the video. “He’s conscious and then, you see that he isn’t. That’s the moment the life goes out of his body.”
Floyd was pronounced dead at hospital.
More than 20 times, Floyd had said: “I can’t breathe.”
“George Floyd begged until he could speak no more and the defendant continued this assault,” said Schleicher, “beyond the point that he had a pulse.
“What the defendant did to George Floyd killed him
“He did this on purpose.”
Rosie DiManno is a Toronto-based columnist covering sports and current affairs for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno