Why didn’t Derek Chauvin testify in his trial, and will the jury hold it against him?

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin

In this courtroom sketch, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin tells the judge that he waived his right to testify to the jury, next to his defense attorney Eric Nelson, on the fourteenth day of Chauvin's trial in the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. April 15, 2021. Photo by REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin elected not to testify on Thursday in his own defense — in the trial over George Floyd’s death. After his decision, the defense rested its case. 

Closing arguments are expected to start Monday, and then the case heads to the jury. Judge Peter Cahill has said jurors will be sequestered while they deliberate. 

Chauvin is facing charges of second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. The most serious of those charges comes with a 10 to 15-year prison sentence. 

What to make of Chauvin not taking the stand? Absolutely nothing, says CNN legal analyst Elliot Williams

“We're kind of broken by ‘Law and Order’ and television shows and cop shows where you expect the defendant to testify every time. … It is incredibly uncommon for a defendant to testify in a trial because testifying is fraught with peril for a defendant. They can be cross examined and picked apart on the stand,” Williams explains. “And more importantly, and people should know this, it's somebody's Fifth Amendment right not to testify against themselves. And to some extent, we ought to embrace that. More importantly, in this case, he would have been eviscerated if he tried to take the stand.”

Would the jury hold it against Chauvin for not explaining himself? Williams says the judge will instruct the jury to not draw an “adverse inference” from the defendant's choice not to testify. “Jurors as people always question why defendants don't testify, and they'll probably hold it against him here. But the judge will be quite explicit. So it's a double-edged sword.”

Lead defense attorney Eric Nelson’s strategy has been to portray Chauvin’s actions as a reasonable use of force, and that George Floyd died of reasons other than Chauvin’s force on his neck, such as of a drug overdose or heart condition. The defense made its case over two days, with six to seven witnesses. In comparison, the prosecution made its case over two weeks, with about three dozen witnesses. 

Williams says the defense worked with what they had, but they face the big challenge of the video documenting Chauvin putting his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes. 

“No matter how much the defense throws up about overdoses, or heart conditions, or carbon monoxide poisoning … there's a really compelling piece of evidence here in that video. This is tough for the defense to overcome,” he says. 

He emphasizes the most important thing to know about this case versus any other: “Trials aren't like boxing, where if you knock the other side down three times, you automatically win. It's not like an academic competition where if you get 95% of the questions right, you automatically get an A. And you're dealing with jurors who are human beings, but also plagued by biases that affect our criminal justice system, and also a set of laws that are just designed to not convict people, and particularly not convict police officers. … You are butting a strong case up against a deeply baked, both legal and cultural, aversion to convicting a police officer.”

The George Floyd tape has been played repeatedly during this trial. Also emerging at the same time: video of Daunte Wright, who was killed by a police officer in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota. Then there's video from Chicago, where a 13-year-old Latino named Adam Toledo had a deadly encounter with a police officer. 

With these events culminating, watching the news Thursday night was very tough for many Black and Brown viewers, says Allissa Richardson, USC journalism professor and author of “Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest #Journalism.” 

“I think a lot of us were very concerned with the effects that these kinds of videos would have on our children. And the threads that I'm seeing of conversations are people who are saying they don't want to watch anymore,” she says. 

Richardson also raises a comparison to the U.S. Capitol insurrection from the beginning of the year. 

“As we think about the language and the excuses, frankly, that many people are giving, when we think about these cases, in terms of Daunte Wright … ‘well why didn't he comply?’ Again, we have to think about the events that we saw on January 6. We saw a sea of people … who did not of course look like Daunte or young Adam Toledo, who were not compliant with police, who charged and rushed into the Capitol, who staged an insurrection … had support from some policemen who opened the doors for them. And they are now at home watching all this play out, telling hero stories, and possibly never going to be called to account for the lives that were taken that day.”

She continues, “And so when you think about … the hypocrisy that goes into some of these discussions of ‘well if those young men just would have done,’ and we look at young men … who are white quite frankly, and how they get to go home, I think that that is really the heart of the conversation that the country continues to have, even a year after Mr. Floyd's death.” 

Credits

Guests:

  • Allissa Richardson - journalism professor at USC and author of “Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest Journalism”
  • Elliot Williams - CNN legal analyst

Host:

Michell Eloy