Witnesses Speak at Derek Chauvin’s Trial



A sketch depicts former Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, at his murder trial.

Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds during an arrest, is now on trial for murder.

On May 25, 2020, four Minneapolis police officers arrested Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man, for allegedly purchasing cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. During the arrest, Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly ten minutes while Floyd repeatedly stated that he couldn’t breathe. Chauvin did not remove his knee until after Floyd lost consciousness and died. The next day, Chauvin was fired from the Minneapolis Police Department. On May 29, 2020, he was charged with third-degree murder, second-degree unintentional murder, and second-degree manslaughter. 

Witnesses’ videos of the killing sparked public anger and civil unrest over the summer. Many public figures, including Billie Eilish, Taylor Swift, and Oprah, spoke out, demanding Chauvin face charges. Chauvin’s trial began on April 3, 2021. Due to the widespread publicity of the case, jurors underwent intense scrutiny to ensure impartiality. The jury consists of one black woman, two multiracial women, three white men, three black men, and six white women. Peter Cahill is the county district court judge selected to decide the case. His decision for the trial to become the first live streamed trial in Minnesota court history allows viewers from around the world to observe the proceedings.

 Chauvin’s defense is arguing that Floyd died of asphyxiation caused by drugs he had ingested previously, rather than the pressure on his neck. Autopsy reports show that Floyd had fentanyl and methamphetamine in his blood at the time of his death. Keeilah Jewell ’22, a head of the Black and Hispanic Student Association (BaHSA), said, “Chauvin’s defense strategy in framing Floyd as a criminal…is not surprising to me, but I do think it’s disgusting, and part of a pattern of cases like this, of black people who were killed by the police. The trials are less about the actual murderer and turned into a case of ‘let’s decide the moral fitness of the person who was killed and…if their life was worth something.’” Christopher Mitchell ’24 agreed, saying, “To use [drug use]…as the reason he died is wrong because…he would not have passed away had Derek Chauvin not put his knee onto George Floyd’s neck.”

Chauvin’s lawyers are arguing that his use of force was appropriate and in line with his training. However, Lt. Richard Zimmerman, head of the Minneapolis Police’s homicide unit, and Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said that kneeling on the neck is not a tactic police officers are trained to use. Jewell, struck by these testimonies, said, “The reality within law enforcement is that the police protect each other above all else. So it was really interesting to me to see multiple members of the police force actually say, ‘No, he is guilty. What he did was absolutely wrong, absolutely unauthorized, and absolutely deadly.’”

Many witnesses, including one as young as nine years-old, have testified. Floyd’s girlfriend and several first responders were among those who spoke. Mitchell said, “There was an older man named Charles McMillian who broke into tears when they started playing the video [showing Floyd’s death]. That one struck me the hardest, because he and many other witnesses were saying, ‘It was traumatizing to watch this; it’s traumatizing to know that this actually happened, to know that I was there.’”

With the case covered so extensively in the media, many wonder whether the final verdict will exacerbate racial tensions in America. Jewell said, “For me, as a black person, I’m always living with the reality that someone could kill me, someone could kill someone I love…and I won’t receive justice. I’m constantly living with that, so the verdict won’t exacerbate that. The people who aren’t used to that feeling, it might exacerbate something in them.” Tessa Hanecak ’24 said, “I believe [an acquittal] will worsen racial tension, because it will further prove that the justice system really doesn’t care about black people. It will enrage the people who care about these issues, because Derek Chauvin will have gotten away with doing something so horrible only because he is a white police officer.”

George Floyd’s family and other witnesses for the defense are expected to testify next. Closing arguments could begin as soon as the week of April 18 and jury deliberations will last until a unanimous verdict is reached.