In his opening statement, prosecutor Jerry W Blackwell said: “Derek Chauvin betrayed his badge when he used excessive and unreasonable force upon the body of George Floyd. “He put his knees upon his neck and back, grinding and crunching him until the very breath, no ladies and gentlemen the very life, was squeezed out of him.”
The central questions during day one of the trial, and likely in the weeks to come, was not whether an encounter took place between the two men on 25 May, or whether Mr Chauvin knelt on Mr Floyd’s neck. As was clear during the day’s proceedings, the incident was filmed from numerous sources: police body cameras, bystanders with cell phones, security footage, police surveillance video.
Instead, after months of protests worldwide that raised questions about racism and policing, the trial seems likely to centre on two narrow lines of inquiry: whether the force Mr Chauvin used was reasonable given the circumstances, and whether it caused Mr Floyd’s death.
“Derek Chauvin did exactly what he had been trained to do over his 19-year career,” defence attorney Eric Nelson argued. “The use of force is not attractive, but it is a necessary part of policing.”
The first, and perhaps the most consequential, witness called on Monday was Jena Scurry, a 911 dispatcher in Minneapolis who watched the arrest unfold in real time on a city camera feed. She described a patrol car rocking back and forth as a group of four officers struggled to put Mr Floyd all the way inside, before moving him back outside onto the ground, where Mr Chauvin knelt on his neck.
Then, as prosecutors put it, she “called the police on the police” once she became concerned as the encounter continued.
“My instincts were telling me something is wrong, something is not right. I don’t know what, but something was not right,” she said. “It was an extended period of time.”
At first, she thought her screen was frozen as officers held Mr Floyd on the ground, but once she realised it wasn’t a glitch, she phoned a sergeant about what was taking place.
“Call me a snitch if you want to,” she can be heard saying on a recording of the call, before describing to the supervising officer how “all of them sat on this man”.
Other observers called to testify were also uneasy with what they saw that day.
Donald Wynn Williams was walking to nearby Cup Foods when he encountered the unfolding arrest.
“He [Mr Floyd] vocalised it that, ‘I can’t breathe. I need to get up. I‘m sorry,’ and his eyes slowly rolled to the back of his head,” Mr Williams said.
Derek Chauvin trial witness says he heard George Floyd ‘pleading for his life’
As an experienced wrestler and mixed-martial arts fighter, Mr Williams told jurors he warned officer Chauvin he was performing a “blood choke” on Mr Floyd that was putting his life at risk.
“We looked each other dead in our eyes,” he said. “When I said it, he acknowledged it.”
Another witness, Alisha Mariee Oyler, who worked at a gas station across the street, told the court she began recording a series of seven cell phone videos because she saw police “messing” with Mr Floyd.
“They’re always messing with people,” she said. “It’s wrong and it’s not right.”
The trial was briefly paused as judge Peter A Cahill warned Mr Williams, the wrestler, not to speculate too much on the cause of Mr Floyd’s death, which will be the second main theme of the trial. Both sides put forth vastly different interpretations of the medical evidence in their opening arguments.
Mr Blackwell, prosecuting, argued that the video evidence showed Mr Floyd having an anoxic seizure and agonal breathing, telltale signs the breath was being forced out of him, rather than having a drug overdose, as the defence has suggested.
People who are having opioid overdoses, Mr Blackwell argued, are “not screaming for their lives, they’re not calling for their mothers, they’re not saying ‘Please, please, I can’t breathe,’ that’s not what opioid overdose looks like.”
But Mr Chauvin’s team has previously noted drug use and cardiac problems, as well as evidence from the crime scene last May pointing to further intoxication, which they said suggested his death was not a result of Mr Chauvin’s knee on his neck.
“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 flowing through his body – all of which acted to further compromise an already comprised heart,” Mr Nelson said.
911 dispatcher says instincts told her ‘something was wrong’ during George Floyd arrest
Ahead of the trial, Mr Floyd’s family promised that whatever the result of the case, the questions it raised went beyond just George Floyd.
“They can’t sweep this under the rug. George Floyd. Philando Castile. They were all killed by officers sworn to protect us,” Philonise Floyd, his brother, said. “If we can’t get justice for a Black man here in America, we will get justice everywhere else in America. This is a starting point. This is not a finishing point.”