STATE OF MINNESOTA v DEREK CHAUVIN (4) - Prosecution and Defense Opening Statements

The trial itself began on the morning of 29th March 2021 with the judge hearing a prosecution motion [1]. The motion stated:

“…the State moves [2] to exclude any characterization of George Floyd’s subjective, internal motivations that could not have been apparent to Defendant on May 25, 2020.”

Basically, the prosecution argued in the motion [3] that any references to George Floyd’s subjective, internal thoughts at the time of the arrest should not be admissible [4].

The judge heard the motion, which only took a few minutes. Judge Cahill gave some examples of the kinds of things which he considered were covered by ‘subjective, internal motivations,’ such as ‘Mr Floyd was trying or wanting to resist arrest, or fight with the officers intentionally and faking his medical distress’.

Defence counsel (attorney) Eric Nelson agreed that these subjective, internal motivations should not be referred to. The judge, in order to clarify what could be said, indicated that what would be acceptable are suggestions such as Mr Floyd appeared to not be complying with the police, rather than he was not complying. This, said the judge, is an inference from the behaviour.

The trial then began with the prosecution opening being delivered by Jerry Blackwell. The primary purpose of a prosecution opening, or ‘opening speech’, is to give the jury a framework and some context for understanding the evidence that is going to be called in the trial. It also allows the prosecution to explain to the jury exactly what the case is against the defendant. Without an opening, the jury would be left in the dark [5] about why the defendant was on trial, and what the case against the defendant was.

In this case, Jerry Blackwell, for the State, set out his stall [6]. From his opening, it seems clear that the prosecution are going to concentrate on several aspects of the case in particular, including:

· the ‘reasonableness’ - or actually unreasonableness - of the force used by the defendant, Derek Chauvin. The prosecution made it clear in the opening that they believe the defendant used excessive and unreasonable force. Jerry Blackwell referred, among other things, to the length of time (9 minutes and 29 seconds) that the defendant had his knee on George Floyd’s neck, the circumstances shown by the video footage taken by bystanders [7], and the fact that the restraint employed by the defendant was inappropriate under authorised police restraint procedures. On several occasions, Jerry Blackwell used the phrase ‘He [Derek Chauvin] doesn’t let up and he doesn’t get up’.

· The assertion that the use of the alleged unreasonable force caused George Floyd’s death. Causation is likely to be a key theme in this trial and for the jury when they eventually retire to consider their verdict.

· The issue of the intention of Derek Chauvin in maintaining his knee on George Floyd’s neck, even when it seems clear that Mr Floyd was unconscious.

Defence counsel Eric Nelson then opened the case for the defence. He began by emphasising that reason will play a central part in the case. For example, ‘what is reasonable force?’, ‘what would a reasonable police officer do?’, and ‘what is a reasonable doubt?’

Mr Nelson stressed that the case was not just about 9 minutes and 29 seconds, but much longer than that. From his opening, it was clear that the allegation of Mr Floyd’s connection with drugs and drug taking will play a central part in the defence [8] case, both in relation to the factual allegations during the time of the arrest and restraint and also the issue of causation.

His opening also suggested that the issue of the crowd of bystanders [9] becoming angrier during the period that Mr Floyd was being restrained on the ground may have a part to play in the defence case. It seems that the defence will argue that the fact the police had to deal with a crowd of increasingly angry bystanders diverted attention away from care towards Mr Floyd.

Finally, Mr Nelson made clear that causation and the cause of death of Mr Floyd will be a significant part of the defence case.

Text Notes:

[1] A ‘motion’. In US law, a motion is a formal request – an application - made by one of the parties for the court/judge to make a decision about something related to the case.

[2] ‘to move’. Here, it essentially means to make an application to the court/judge for a ruling or order.

[3] The motion referred to can be read here:

[4] inadmissible. All evidence which the parties in a trial wish to rely on must be ‘relevant’ to some issue in the case which must be proved. Relevance is a key concept in the law of evidence. Essentially, in order for evidence to be admissible (allowed to be received by the court), evidence must be relevant. Evidence is generally relevant if any two facts are so related to each other that, in the usual course of events, one of the facts makes the other fact probable. If evidence is not relevant, it is ‘irrelevant’ and, therefore, inadmissible.

[5] ‘to be in the dark (about something’) – This means to not know something that other people do know about.

[6] ‘to set out your stall’ – This means to openly reveal something, such as your intentions, beliefs, or (in this situation) what your case is.

[7] ‘counsel’ – Trial lawyers are sometimes called counsel.

[8] ‘defence’ – In American English, this is spelt ‘defense’.

[9] ‘bystanders’ – People who are present at the scene of an event and are not necessarily directly involved in it but are usually just observers.

© Cambridge Legal English Academy 2021

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