20.06.2021

Witnesses in Derek Chauvin trial reflect on trauma of watching George Floyd’s death

Earlier in the day, 19-year-old Christopher Martin, a cashier at Cup Foods, a nearby grocery store, described standing there in “disbelief and guilt” as the arrest unfolded on the street outside.

As the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin continued on Wednesday, multiple witnesses described the trauma they felt watching George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, die in police custody last May.

Witness Charles McMillian, 61, was the first bystander to witness the fatal arrest, during which officer Chauvin knelt on Mr Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes. Mr McMillian began to weep as he watched video of Mr Floyd calling for his mother and begging for air.

“I can’t, I feel helpless,” Mr McMillian said, dabbing his eyes with a tissue. “I don’t have a mother either, I understand him.”

The court paused for a break to allow him to regain his composure.

The manager of the store, his supervisor, told another employee to call the police after Mr Floyd used a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes.

“If I would’ve just not taken the bill, this could’ve been avoided,” Mr Martin said.

Those watching the trial were also overcome with emotion. According to press pool reports, Mr Floyd’s youngest brother Rodney averted his eyes while video of the arrest was being shown, and the court briefly paused after one of the jurors said she was having a “stress-related reaction” to the trial and hadn’t been sleeping well.

Ultimately, despite the clear impact Mr Floyd’s death had on those who were present — as well as protesters around the world — the trial will come down to whether the force Mr Chauvin used is considered reasonable and what the ultimate cause of Mr Floyd’s death was. The airing of video in court on Wednesday provided a detailed picture of key moments in the arrest that will speak to those questions.

Mr Martin, the cashier, said that he struck up a conversation about sports with Mr Floyd when he first entered the store, and that his slow manner of speaking made him think the man was high on drugs.

“It kind of took him a little long to get to what he wanted to say, so it would appear that he was high,” Mr Martin said.

This echoes a key theme of the defence’s argument, that Mr Floyd was on drugs at the time of his arrest, contributing to his death.

“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 Chauvin’s attorney Eric Nelson said during his opening statement on Monday.

Elsewhere, on body camera footage, officers can be heard asking Mr Floyd if he is on drugs, which he denies. Shawanda Hill, a friend who was in the car with Mr Floyd, tells officers “he had problems” and makes a “crazy” gesture twirling her finger near her head.

During other portions of the video, however, Mr Floyd is lucid enough to buy cigarettes in Cup Foods and receive his change, tell officers his name and date of birth, and warn them he was claustrophobic as they attempted to load him into a squad car.

The tenor of the encounter ebbs and flows.

As police arrived to investigate the fake $20 bill, former MPD officer Thomas Lane can be seen approaching the parked car Mr Floyd was sitting in and tapping on the window, asking to see his hands. After a few seconds, where he says he saw Mr Floyd reach for something and ignore his commands, the officer withdraws his gun and points it at Mr Floyd, who becomes visibly distressed.

“Please don’t shoot me Mr Officer,” Mr Floyd says, saying that he had previously been shot.

Alex Keung, another of the former MPD officers involved in the incident, who will go on trial with two other officers who were at the scene later this summer, can then be seen walking Mr Floyd in handcuffs to a nearby wall. Mr Floyd thanks him and gives officers his biographical information.

Things began to escalate once again as officers try to load Mr Floyd into a squad car across the street. He pleads that he is claustrophobic and scared he is going to die, and eventually officers pull him through the back seat of the car to the opposite site, where they begin kneeling on his back as he begs for air.

The body camera footage concludes with Mr Floyd lying motionless for minutes with officers on top of him, as a crowd of bystanders urge officers to let him up or take his pulse.

The state of Minnesota has argued that, all things considered, the police used disproportionate force to what the arrest required.

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.”

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