• Sun. May 16th, 2021

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‘Believe Your Eyes,’ Prosecutor Tells Jury on First Day of Derek Chauvin Trial

MINNEAPOLIS — For nearly a year, the country’s understanding of George Floyd’s death has come mostly from a gruesome video of a white Minneapolis police officer kneeling on Mr. Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes. It has become, for many, a painful encapsulation of racism in policing.

But as the murder trial of the officer, Derek Chauvin, opened on Monday, his lawyer attempted to convince jurors that there was more to know about Mr. Floyd’s death than the stark video.

The case was about Mr. Floyd’s drug use, the lawyer, Eric J. Nelson, argued. It was about Mr. Floyd’s size, his resistance of police officers and his weakened heart, the lawyer said. It was about an increasingly agitated crowd that gathered at an intersection in South Minneapolis, which he said diverted Mr. Chauvin’s attention from Mr. Floyd, who was Black. This, Mr. Nelson asserted, was, in part, an overdose, not a police murder.

Prosecutors, however, said that the case was exactly what it seemed to be — and exactly what the video, with its graphic, indelible moments, had revealed.

“You can believe your eyes, that it’s homicide,” Jerry W. Blackwell, one of the prosecutors, told jurors in an opening statement. “It’s murder.”

The clashing approaches came on the first day of the trial in a killing that stunned the nation and set off months of protests over racism and police abuse around the world. Mr. Floyd’s death, on May 25, also set off unrest that engulfed large portions of Minneapolis, and some residents worry that such scenes could play out again, depending on how this trial ends.

Prosecutors began their case by playing for jurors the widely viewed bystander video, but the defense team urged them to look beyond it to other issues, adopting a tactic that has been used in earlier police cases involving damning video evidence.

It was used in the case of Rodney King, who was beaten by Los Angeles police officers in 1991, and in the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald by a Chicago police officer in 2014, with mixed results. The officers in Mr. King’s case, who were seen on video kicking him and beating him with batons, were acquitted on state charges but convicted on federal civil rights charges. Jason Van Dyke, an officer whose shooting of Mr. McDonald was captured on dashcam video, was convicted of second-degree murder, the most serious charge that Mr. Chauvin is now facing.

“Derek Chauvin did exactly what he had been trained to do over the course of his 19-year career,” Mr. Nelson told jurors during an opening statement from behind a plastic barrier, erected to prevent the spread of Covid-19. “The use of force is not attractive, but it is a necessary component of policing.”

The prosecution said it would present reams of evidence that Mr. Chauvin violated policy, his training and widely accepted practice.

The video may well be the most explosive evidence in the trial, but medical evidence — and the particular scientific reasons for Mr. Floyd’s death — also appeared likely to play a central role, the lawyers suggested on Monday.

An autopsy report, released shortly after Mr. Floyd’s death, classified the death as a homicide and found that the cause was “cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint and neck compression” — essentially, that Mr. Floyd’s heart stopped because his body was deprived of oxygen following obstructed blood flow, and that the physical restraint by Mr. Chauvin was a significant factor. That autopsy, by Dr. Andrew Baker, the Hennepin County medical examiner, also found that Mr. Floyd had fentanyl and methamphetamine in his system.

Prosecutors said they would present seven additional medical experts to show that the cause of death was asphyxia, and that asphyxiation is difficult to detect. Pathologists hired by the Floyd family have attributed the death to asphyxia.

Asphyxia would pin the blame more definitively on Mr. Chauvin, while cardiopulmonary arrest could be caused by many factors. The defense argued that Mr. Floyd had died of hypertension, heart disease, drug ingestion and “the adrenaline flowing through his body.”

Mr. Blackwell said Mr. Floyd’s behavior was not consistent with that of people who die of an opioid overdose, who he said fall unconscious. As Mr. Chauvin pinned him to the ground for nine minutes and 29 seconds, Mr. Floyd had cried out that he could not breathe, at one point calling for his mother.

“They’re not screaming for their lives,” Mr. Blackwell said of someone experiencing an overdose. “They’re not calling on their mothers. They are not begging: ‘Please, please. I can’t breathe.’”

He continued: “The most important numbers you will hear in this trial are nine, two, nine. What happened in those nine minutes and 29 seconds when Mr. Derek Chauvin was applying this excess force to the body of Mr. George Floyd.”

Mr. Nelson, the defense lawyer, sought to downplay the significance that many people had drawn from the video.

“There is no political or social cause in this courtroom,” he said. “But the evidence is far greater than nine minutes, 29 seconds.”

There are more than 50,000 pieces of evidence, Mr. Nelson said, and the authorities interviewed more than 200 civilian witnesses for the case.

Among three witnesses whom prosecutors called to testify on Monday was a 911 dispatcher who observed the arrest on a surveillance video feed and called a police supervisor because she was concerned. The dispatcher, Jena Scurry, said the police were restraining Mr. Floyd for so long that she asked someone if the video footage “had frozen.”

For his part, Mr. Nelson focused on Mr. Floyd’s actions on the evening of his death. Mr. Floyd had been accused of using a fake $20 bill to buy cigarettes from Cup Foods, a convenience store, which led a clerk to call the police. Mr. Floyd had taken pills that contained methamphetamine and fentanyl, Mr. Nelson said. He fell asleep in his car. He then struggled with police officers, Mr. Nelson said.

Once the officers got Mr. Floyd to the ground, Mr. Nelson asserted, he was still resisting. Mr. Floyd was eventually subdued, Mr. Nelson said, but he seemed to dispute one of the central elements that has appeared to be shown in the video — that Mr. Chauvin was kneeling on Mr. Floyd’s neck.

“Mr. Chauvin used his knee to pin Mr. Floyd’s left shoulder blade and back to the ground and his right knee to pin Mr. Floyd’s left arm to the ground,” he said.

And as he was restraining Mr. Floyd, Mr. Chauvin and the three other officers on the scene grew wary of the crowd growing around them, and perceived a threat, Mr. Nelson said. All four officers were fired by the Police Department shortly after Mr. Floyd’s death, and the other three face charges of aiding and abetting second-degree murder.

“There’s more to the scene than just what the officers see in front of them,” he said. “There are people behind them. There are people across the street. There are cars stopping, people yelling.”

The chaotic surroundings caused “the officers to divert their attention from the care of Mr. Floyd to the threat that was growing in front of them,” Mr. Nelson continued, suggesting that those dynamics played a factor in how his client treated Mr. Floyd.

As the trial began in Hennepin County District Court on Monday, a nervous energy pervaded downtown Minneapolis, where several government buildings, including the courthouse, were encased with concrete slabs and metal fencing. A helicopter whirred overhead for much of the sunny, windswept day.

Reporters gathered on a lawn just south of the courthouse, where members of Mr. Floyd’s family and their lawyers held a news conference before the trial started.

“They say trust the system,” said Terrence Floyd, one of Mr. Floyd’s brothers. “Well, this is your chance to show us we can trust you.”

Many supporters of the Floyd family said they had seen earlier cases in which video evidence was not enough to secure a conviction against the police. Law enforcement officers have recently killed about 1,000 people a year, experts say, but fewer than 200 officers have been charged over the past 15 years; fewer than 50 have been convicted.

“Let us be clear that it is not just Chauvin on trial,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who has been working with the Floyd family. “The United States’ ability to deal with police accountability is on trial.”

John Eligon, Tim Arango and Shaila Dewan reported from Minneapolis, and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs from New York.