Derek Chauvin trial week 1 takeaways: An emotional witness stand and new footage

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Angie Perrin

In this courtroom sketch, paramedic Zachary Bravinder answers questions as a video taken of an ambulance crew treating George Floyd during his May 25, 2020 arrest plays on a screen, on the fourth day of the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. April 1, 2021. Photo by REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg

Today wraps up the first week of testimony in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who is accused of killing George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for more than nine minutes. Floyd’s death prompted weeks of protests nationwide

“I didn’t detect a pulse. ... I thought he was dead,” paramedic Seth Bravinder told the jury this week. He was one of the paramedics first called to the scene outside of Cup Foods on May 25, 2020.   

Bystanders and other witnesses, including mixed martial arts fighter Donald Williams and 18-year-old Darnella Frazier took to the stand. Frazier recorded Floyd’s death on her phone and uploaded it to Facebook — a video that became seen around the world.

Prosecutors also showed footage from the incident, including body camera video from three other police officers on the scene during the incident. The trial is expected to run at least through the end of April.

KCRW recaps the first week with Brandt Williams, a criminal justice and public safety correspondent for Minnesota Public Radio News, and Monique Pressley, a legal analyst and former criminal defense attorney.

Emotions on the witness stand

Many witnesses, including Darnella Frazier and Charles McMillian, erupted in tears when they took to the stand.

Pressley says the displays of emotion showed how community members were deeply affected by the incident in their own neighborhoods.

“What you've witnessed in witness after witness coming forward and expressing guilt, expressing remorse, expressing regret, is the fact that they love the members of their own community, and that every human life has value. And that has been on display the past four days.”

She adds that although the prosecution didn’t provide jurors with the chronological order of events on May 25, they provided testimony and exhibits in order of relevance. That started with 911 operator Jena Scurry taking the stand and discussing her call about a man who tried to use a counterfeit bill. She later called the police after watching footage of Floyd’s arrest.

“We're seeing through her eyes because the cameras are on. She's watching this scene on the street, and she just knows that something is very wrong. She at one point says that she thought there was a glitch … in the video equipment, and that it was frozen. Because in her mind, there was just no reason why these officers would be not just on the neck, but pressing down on the body of George Floyd for that long.”

According to Williams, this week’s testimony has pushed jurors to pay close attention to testimony as well as the footage of police physically wrestling with Floyd. 

New angles of the George Floyd incident

Wiliams says body camera footage from police officers have provided the general public and jurors with a closer look at the incident. That includes the initial contact between then officer Thomas Lane and Floyd, and the moment when Lane pulled out his firearm.

“You can see George Floyd's reaction: being startled, starting to plead with officers as they try to get him from his car and over to the squad car,” Williams says. “You're hearing this up close of George Floyd pleading and telling officers, ‘I'm claustrophobic, I can't get in the car, I can't breathe.’ All these things came through very boldly in that video.”

How the defense treated witnesses

Donald Williams was called to the stand to not only testify about what he witnessed the day Floyd died, but also to comment on the use of the chokehold, due to his experience as a mixed martial arts fighter. 

When examined by Eric Nelson, Chauvin’s attorney, he implied that Donald Williams had incited Chauvin’s behavior by calling him names. 

“You called him bogus. You called him a bum at least 13 times,” Nelson told Williams during the trial. 

According to Pressley, the encounter was an example of attempting to incite anger and other emotions out of Williams, who is a Black man. 

“I thought that was a quintessential capturing of what Black men in America go through. Because on that stand, he was doing the best he possibly could to be clear, to be concise, to not be overly emotional, to tamp down on what you see as anger and rage from witness after witness who watched a man be killed.”

She argues that Donald Williams’ reaction to how Chauvin treated Floyd results from watching someone dying in front of their eyes.

“These are witnesses who watched a man be killed, and that is something that very few people in the country, or in the world, actually witness in real time with their own eyes. And it is traumatizing, so we're hearing about their trauma,” Pressley says. “The manner in which they conducted themselves, including Donald Williams, was with restraint, considering what they were watching.”

Pressley counters Nelson’s argument by pointing out that police officers are supposed to be trained to handle an agitated crowd, as well as panic and anxiety attacks.

“They're still supposed to be able to do their jobs. In fact, that is the job,” Pressely says.

Extra resources for those who might need help managing the stress of the trial: 

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI Minnesota): Resources For The BIPOC Community During The Chauvin Trial

LA County Department of Mental Health: Anti-racism resources 

Credits

Guests:
Monique Pressley - legal analyst and former criminal defense attorney, Brandt Williams - criminal justice and public safety correspondent, Minnesota Public Radio News

Host:
Madeleine Brand

Producers:
Sarah Sweeney, Angie Perrin, Michell Eloy, Amy Ta, Rosalie Atkinson, Brian Hardzinski, Bennett Purser