A witness said he saw George Floyd struggle for air and “slowly fade away…like a fish in a bag” as police officer Derek Chauvin held his knee on the man”s neck during his arrest.
Chauvin is now charged with murder and manslaughter following Floyd’s death in police custody last May. Bystander video of Floyd’s arrest sparked racial justice protests around the United States last year.
Former wrestler Donald Williams was one of the first onlookers to testify in Chauvin’s trial on Monday.
Williams, who said he was trained in mixed martial arts including chokeholds, had yelled at the officer that he was cutting off Floyd’s blood supply.
He said Chauvin appeared to increase pressure on Floyd during the more than nine minutes that the officer held his knee on Floyd’s neck during the arrest.
He recalled that Floyd’s voice grew thicker as his breathing became more laboured, and he eventually stopped moving.
“From there on he was lifeless,” Williams said. “He didn’t move, he didn’t speak, he didn’t have no life in him no more on his body movements.”
Prosecutors lead with bystander footage of Floyd’s arrest
Prosecutors led with the bystander video that captured Floyd’s arrest on May 25. He had been accused of trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill at a convenience store.
“My stomach hurts. My neck hurts. Everything hurts,” Floyd says in the video, and: “I can’t breathe, officer.”
Onlookers repeatedly shout at the officer to get off Floyd, saying he is not moving, breathing, or resisting.
Prosecutor Jerry Blackwell showed the jurors the footage at the earliest opportunity, during opening statements. He said Chauvin pinned Floyd to the pavement for nine minutes and 29 seconds.
The white officer “didn’t let up” even after a handcuffed Floyd said 27 times that he couldn’t breathe and went limp, Blackwell said.
“He put his knees upon his neck and his back, grinding and crushing him, until the very breath, no, ladies and gentlemen, until the very life was squeezed out of him,” the prosecutor said.
Defence attorney Eric Nelson countered by arguing that the former officer “did exactly what he had been trained to do over his 19-year career.” He said that Floyd fought efforts to put him in a police car.
The crowd of onlookers around Chauvin and his fellow officers grew and became increasingly hostile, Nelson said. The defence attorney also disputed that Chauvin was to blame for Floyd’s death.
Nelson said that Floyd did not show signs of asphyxiation and had fentanyl and methamphetamine in his system.
He said Floyd’s drug use, combined with his heart disease, high blood pressure and the adrenaline flowing through his body, caused a heart rhythm disturbance that killed him.
“There is no political or social cause in this courtroom,” Nelson said. “But the evidence is far greater than 9 minutes and 29 seconds.”
Blackwell, however, rejected the argument that Floyd’s drug use or any underlying health conditions were to blame, saying it was the officer’s knee that killed him.
The prosecutor said the case was “not about split-second decision-making” by a police officer but excessive force against someone who was handcuffed and not resisting.
Protesters gather after first day of trial
A few hundred protesters gathered outside the courthouse after the first day of the trial, calling for justice for people killed during encounters with police.
The trial is being live-streamed due to the pandemic.
The downtown Minneapolis courthouse has been fortified with concrete barriers, fences and barbed and razor wire. City and state leaders are determined to prevent a repeat of the riots that followed Floyd’s death.
Fourteen jurors or alternates are hearing the case — eight of them white, six of them Black or multiracial, according to the court. Only 12 will deliberate; the judge has not said which two will be alternates.
Three other former officers go on trial in August because Cahill ruled there wasn’t enough space to try all four at once.