The trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd is underway in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Chauvin, who is white, is charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter in connection with the death of George Floyd, who was Black, during an arrest last May. For 8 minutes and 46 seconds, Floyd – handcuffed and face down on the pavement – said repeatedly that he could not breathe, while other officers looked on.
A video of Floyd’s agonizing death soon went viral, triggering last summer’s unprecedented wave of mass protests against police violence and racism. Chauvin’s murder trial is expected to last up to four weeks.
The courtroom in a tower in downtown Minneapolis was ringed with concrete barriers, barbed wire and soldiers from the state’s National Guard. For blocks around, businesses are closed and windows boarded up, fearing a repeat of the arson and other property damage that occurred after Floyd’s death.
Less than three miles away, residents maintain a vigil at the intersection where Chauvin kept his knee on a handcuffed Floyd’s neck for about 9 minutes as Floyd uses his final breaths to plead for his life. Chauvin and three other officers were arresting Floyd on suspicion of passing a fake $20 bill at the Cup Foods grocery store nearby.
Four sets of barricades block police from coming to the intersection, now called George Floyd Square, which is filled with flowers, posters, murals and other tributes to Floyd.
The jury, including three alternates, is made up of six white women, three white men, three Black men, one Black woman and two multiracial women, according to court records.
“I’m thankful that it is a diverse jury,” Paris Stevens, a cousin of Floyd who works as a nurse in North Carolina, said in a telephone interview. “I’m very anxious because you don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m just glad that this process is starting.”
She and other relatives have been told by the court they must take turns in using a single chair reserved for Floyd’s family in the courtroom, which has been kitted out with plexiglass screens, hand-sanitizer stations and other anti-coronavirus measures.
Chauvin has also been allocated a single chair for his supporters, which has not been used by anyone since the trial began with jury selection on March 8 except for the occasional sheriff’s deputy overseeing security wanting to take the weight off his feet.
Legal experts have noted that U.S. police officers have almost never been found criminally liable for killing a citizen. Chauvin’s lawyers have said they will try to convince the jury that the fentanyl, an opioid painkiller, found in Floyd’s blood by the medical examiner played a bigger role in killing Floyd than the officer’s restraint.
Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights activist who joined the Floyd family at Sunday’s service, echoed prosecutors in calling this an “attempt to smear his name.”
On Monday morning outside the courthouse, Sharpton, Floyd’s relatives, and local activists silently got down on one knee for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in a tribute to Floyd.
Tiffany Jeffers, a former Maryland Prosecutor, and a Georgetown law professor, said she saw the defendant’s case as an uphill battle in part because of the widely seen video. All members of the jury have said they already saw at least snippets of it.
“This video is just so powerful,” Jeffers said.