The defense began its case Tuesday at the murder trial of former Officer Derek Chauvin, seizing on a 2019 confrontation between police and George Floyd in which Floyd suffered dangerously high blood pressure and confessed to heavy use of opioid painkillers.
Chauvin lawyer Eric Nelson has argued that Floyd died last May because of his illegal drug use and underlying health problems, not because Chauvin pinned him to the pavement with his knee.
Moments after the prosecution rested its case Tuesday following 11 days of testimony and a mountain of video evidence, the defense put on its first witness, a retired Minneapolis police officer who testified about a May 6, 2019, incident in which Floyd was arrested, a year before his fatal encounter with Chauvin.
Scott Creighton said he drew his gun when Floyd, a passenger in a car, did not comply with orders to show his hands. Nelson played body-camera video that showed Creighton approaching on the passenger side, drawing his gun and pulling Floyd out.
Chauvin’s lawyer twice asked questions aimed at getting the jury thinking about Floyd swallowing drugs, but Creighton said he did not see Floyd take anything.
Another witness who responded to that call, now-retired paramedic Michelle Moseng, testified that Floyd told her he had been taking multiple opioids about every 20 minutes.
“I asked him why and he said it was because he was addicted,” said Moseng, who described Floyd’s behavior as “elevated and agitated” before the judge struck that remark from the record.
Moseng also said she recommended taking Floyd to the hospital based on his high blood pressure, which she measured at 216 over 160.
On cross-examination, prosecutor Erin Eldridge got Moseng to testify that Floyd’s respiratory output, pulse, heart rate, EKG and heart rhythms were normal. Eldridge said Floyd was taken to the hospital and released two hours later.
Eldridge also made a point of noting that officers gave Floyd contradictory commands, with Creighton telling him to put his hands on the dashboard and another officer telling him to put his hands on his head. She noted that another officer threatened to use a stun gun on him, while Floyd asked not to be shot or beaten up.
Judge Peter Cahill cautioned jurors that the evidence from the earlier stop was only for the limited purpose of showing the effects that opioids might have had on Floyd — and that they were not to use it to judge Floyd’s character.
Medical experts for the prosecution testified previously that Floyd died of lack of oxygen because his breathing was constricted as police held him down on his stomach, his hands cuffed behind his back, with Chauvin’s knee on or close to his neck for as much as 9 1/2 minutes.
The prosecution experts rejected the notion that his drug use, high blood pressure or heart disease caused Floyd’s death.
In fact, on Monday, Dr. Jonathan Rich, a cardiology expert from Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, testified: “Every indicator is that Mr. Floyd had actually an exceptionally strong heart.”
Chauvin’s lawyer introduced the 2019 arrest to show what he portrayed as a pattern of behavior on Floyd’s part.
Body-camera footage from the day Floyd died shows two officers approaching a panicked Floyd, who says, “I’m not a bad guy!” and struggles, begging not to be put in a squad car. Drugs were later found in Floyd’s SUV and in the squad car, and fentanyl and methamphetamine were discovered in his system.
In court papers, Nelson wrote that during the 2019 arrest, Floyd wouldn’t listen to officers’ commands, put something in his mouth, had to be removed from a vehicle, then began to cry. In that case, several opioid pills were found along with cocaine, he and another officer’s attorney wrote.
A third defense witness Tuesday, Shawanda Hill, who was in the SUV with Floyd before his ill-fated encounter with Chauvin, said that Floyd fell asleep at some point and seemed startled when he realized police were there.
When he saw an officer at the window with a gun, Floyd “instantly grabbed the wheel and he was like, ‘Please, please, don’t kill me. Please, please, don’t shoot me. Don’t shoot me. What did I do? Just tell me what I did. Please, don’t kill. Please, don’t shoot me,’” Hill testified.
Nelson also sought to bolster previous suggestions that the officers’ actions were influenced by what they perceived as a hostile crowd of bystanders shouting at Chauvin to get off Floyd’s neck.
Minneapolis Park Police Officer Peter Chang, who helped out at the scene that day, testified that he saw a “crowd” growing across the street that “was becoming more loud and aggressive, a lot of yelling across the street.”
“Did that cause you any concern?” asked Nelson, who played footage from Chang’s body camera, on which bystanders can be heard yelling and becoming increasingly frantic.
“Concern for the officers’ safety, yes,” Chang replied.
During the prosecution side of the case, the wrenching video of Floyd gasping for air was played for the jury along with other bystander footage and police body-camera video of the 46-year-old Black man’s slow-motion death after his arrest of suspicion of passing a counterfeit $20 at a neighborhood market.
Law enforcement experts and veteran Minneapolis police officials, including the police chief himself, testified that Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck was excessive and contrary to his training and departmental policy.
Nelson hasn’t said whether Chauvin will take the stand. Testifying could open him up to devastating cross-examination but could also give the jury the opportunity to see any remorse or sympathy on the officer’s part.