To the prosecution, the witnesses who watched George Floyd ’s body go still were regular people — a firefighter, a mixed martial arts fighter, a high school student and her 9-year-old cousin in a T-shirt emblazoned with the word “Love” — going about their daily lives when they happened upon the ghastly scene of an officer kneeling on a man’s neck.
“Normal folks, the bystanders,” prosecutor Jerry Blackwell called them in his opening statement. “You’re going to see these bystanders, a veritable bouquet of humanity.”
In his closing argument on Monday, prosecutor Steve Schleicher described how Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged with murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death, stayed on top of Floyd and “continued to push him down, to grind his knees, to twist his hand, to twist his fingers into the handcuffs that bound him looking at him, staring, staring down at times the horrified bystanders who had gathered and watched this unfold.”
But some of the same people were portrayed as unruly, angry, even threatening by Eric Nelson, Chauvin’s attorney. Nelson told the jury about the hostility the officers faced, how they were distracted and perhaps frightened by people at the scene. He described the bystanders as a “crowd” that created “a hostile environment.”
Nelson said Monday that they played an important role, even “startling” Chauvin, during what he described as a “critical moment” in Floyd’s death. As he played video of Floyd’s last breath, he pointed out that Chauvin pulls out his mace and begins to shake it as an off-duty Minneapolis firefighter approaches Floyd.
“As the crowd grew in size, seemingly so too did their anger,” Nelson said in his opening statement on March 29. “And remember, there’s more to the scene than just what the officers see in front of them. There are people behind them, there are people across the street, there are cars stopping, people yelling. There is a growing crowd and what officers perceive to be a threat.”
The carefully calibrated language by each side was no accident. As Nelson cross-examined Donald Williams, a former wrestler and a mixed martial arts fighter who also worked security, he peppered his questions with the word “crowd”: “Have you ever had to deal with a crowd of people?” “Have you ever had to deal with a crowd of people that was upset?” and “Is it easier or harder to deal with a crowd that is upset?”
Video of the scene suggests something less than a crowd. Around 15 people can be seen on surveillance video on the sidewalk in front of Cup Foods, where Chauvin pinned Floyd to the street. That camera shows Darnella Frazier, who made the most widely seen bystander video, walking past with her 9-year-old cousin, then returning to begin filming, one of the first people to stop and watch. Others gather, one by one.
A still image of body-camera footage from Officer Tou Thao, who was facing the bystanders and admonishing them to stay on the sidewalk, shows 14 people. At least five are female, including Frazier, her cousin and two teenagers. One bystander is a small child. At least three people have their phones out to capture the scene. Of the 14, only one — a teenage girl two steps into the street with her phone out — is off the sidewalk at that point, although the live video shows others stepping into the street at times.
Nelson suggested there were others off camera — across the street and on the other side of the intersection — though the broadest camera view doesn’t show a crowd at the intersection. He also highlighted passing cars that may have heightened officers’ stress.
Mike Brandt, a local defense attorney who closely watched the trial, said Nelson needed “to come up with some explanation as to why the cops kept doing what they were doing.” He said during the trial that he did not think it would be persuasive.
“When you look at the ‘crowd’ you have visions of two or three people deep fanning out 180 degrees (if not more) around the officers,” Brandt said. “That really wasn’t the case.”
Video shot by Frazier and others shows people upset by what they were seeing. Blackwell said bystanders first sought to “intercede with their voices,” then began taking video. Before long, some were imploring Chauvin to have mercy on Floyd.
“You got him down — let him breathe,” someone yells. A woman says, “How long y’all going to hold him down?”
Concern grows when Floyd falls silent. “He’s not responsive right now,” someone says. Onlooker Genevieve Hansen, a firefighter, urges officers to check his pulse. Another asks, “Did they (expletive) kill him?”
Hansen testified that she was on her way home from a walk when she saw the police vehicles.
“I was concerned to see a handcuffed man who was not moving, with officers with their whole body weight on his back, and a crowd that was stressed out,” she said.
She said she identified herself as a firefighter but officers refused to let her come to Floyd’s aid. She admitted raising her voice and using foul language “because I was desperate” to help Floyd. In cross-examination, Nelson asked her how she would react if she was fighting a fire and a crowd of bystanders took issue with her work. Hansen said she wouldn’t have a problem.
No bystander was more vocal than Williams, and Nelson worked to draw him out.
Nelson asked if Williams grew angrier as the arrest continued, and the mixed martial arts fighter agreed that he did. Nelson also noted that Williams called Chauvin names — “tough guy,” “real man.” He called him a “bum” 13 times. When Williams appeared to step off the curb and Thao touched him, Nelson said Williams threatened the officer.
Williams didn’t disagree.
“Yeah, I did,” he said without hesitation. “I meant it.” But he said his anger was directed at what was happening to Floyd.
“You can’t paint me out to be angry,” he told Nelson.
Frazier, too, was at the center of a notable exchange with Nelson. She confirmed to him that as time went on, more people gathered, voices became louder, and people got more angry.
But Blackwell followed up by asking Frazier whether anyone threatened police, became violent, acted unruly or could be fairly called a “mob.” No, she responded.
Did she see any onlooker “do anything to attack or threaten Mr. Chauvin?”
“No,” she replied.
“Did you see a single thing that indicated to you that Mr. Chauvin was afraid of you, your little cousin or a single one of the bystanders?” Blackwell asked.
The answer, again, “No.”
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