As jury deliberations are underway in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged with murder and manslaughter for killing George Floyd last May, we go to Minneapolis to discuss final arguments and what is next in the case. We speak with civil rights attorney Nekima Levy Armstrong, who says the prosecution “started strong and ended strong” by reminding “the jury that they could believe what they had seen with their own eyes.”
AMY GOODMAN: Jury deliberations have begun in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former white Minneapolis police officer charged with murder and manslaughter for killing George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for nine-and-a-half minutes last May. Floyd’s death sparked international protests calling for racial justice. Authorities in Minnesota are now bracing for a verdict in one of the most closely watched criminal trials in years.
During closing arguments, state prosecutor Steve Schleicher repeatedly reminded jurors this case was solely about Chauvin’s actions, not about policing as a whole.
STEVE SCHLEICHER: This use of force was unreasonable. It was excessive. It was grossly disproportionate. It is not an excuse for the shocking abuse that you saw with your own eyes. And you can believe your own eyes. This case is exactly what you thought when you saw it first, when you saw that video. It is exactly that. You can believe your eyes. It’s exactly what you believed. It’s exactly what you saw with your eyes. It’s exactly what you knew. It’s what you felt in your gut. It’s what you now know in your heart. This wasn’t policing. This was murder. The defendant is guilty of all three counts, all of them, and there’s no excuse.
AMY GOODMAN: Derek Chauvin’s defense lawyer, Eric Nelson, faulted prosecutors for focusing on the nine minutes and 29 seconds when his client had his knee on George Floyd’s neck.
ERIC NELSON: So we get into the nine minutes and 29 seconds at this point. The state has really focused on the nine minutes and 29 seconds. Nine minutes, 29 seconds. Nine minutes, 29 seconds. It’s not the proper analysis, because the nine minutes and 29 seconds ignores the previous 16 minutes and 59 seconds. It completely disregards it. It says, in that moment, at that point, nothing else that happened before should be taken into consideration by a reasonable police officer. It tries to reframe the issue of what a reasonable police officer would do. A reasonable police officer would, in fact, take into consideration the previous 16 minutes and 59 seconds, their experience with the subject, the struggle that they had, the comparison of the words to actions. It all comes into play. Why? Because human behavior is unpredictable. Human behavior is unpredictable, and nobody knows it better than a police officer.
AMY GOODMAN: The closing arguments ended with a rebuttal from state prosecutor Jerry Blackwell.
JERRY BLACKWELL: When Mr. Floyd is saying, “Please, please, I can’t breathe,” 27 times in just a few minutes, you saw it when Mr. Chauvin did not let up and didn’t get up. Even when he passed out, not breathing anymore, he doesn’t let up or get up. When he knows he doesn’t have a pulse, he doesn’t let up or get up. Even when the ambulance comes, he doesn’t let up or get up even then. They have to come up and tap him, before he will let up and get up off the body of Mr. George Floyd. And they try to resuscitate him in the ambulance, and they never do. He never regains consciousness. He never breathes again. His heart never pumps again. And Mr. George Floyd was deceased. …
You were told, for example, that Mr. Floyd died — that Mr. Floyd died because his heart was too big. You heard that testimony. And now having seen all the evidence, having heard all the evidence, you know the truth. And the truth of the matter is that the reason George Floyd is dead is because Mr. Chauvin’s heart was too small.
AMY GOODMAN: After the conclusion of closing arguments, defense lawyer Eric Nelson filed a motion for a mistrial, claiming that recent comments by Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters could be construed as a threat against the jury. During a recent protest in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, over the police killing of Daunte Wright, the 20-year-old Black man, Congressmember Waters said protesters should get more, quote, “confrontational” if Chauvin is not found guilty. Judge Peter Cahill refused to grant a mistrial but said the comment could lead to the verdict being overturned on appeal.
To talk more about the Derek Chauvin trial, we’re joined by two guests. In St. Paul, Minnesota, John Thompson is with us, newly elected member of the Minnesota House of Representatives, longtime community activist. In 2016, police killed his friend Philando Castile during a traffic stop in a suburb of St. Paul. And Nekima Levy Armstrong is back with us, the Minneapolis-based civil rights attorney, activist and executive director of the Wayfinder Foundation. Levy Armstrong previously served as president of the Minneapolis NAACP and is a law professor at the University of St. Thomas.
We welcome you, Nekima, back to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with you. Assess the closing arguments. What did you think of the prosecution and then of the defense?
NEKIMA LEVY ARMSTRONG: I thought the prosecution in this case started strong and ended strong. They did an excellent job reminding the jury of all of the information that had come forward before, including the expert testimony. And they reminded the jury that they could believe what they had seen with their own eyes, not the shenanigans that Eric Nelson tried to put forward with the variety of different theories as to why George Floyd wound up dead on May 25th of 2020.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Nekima Levy Armstrong, what do you make of the defense’s last-minute attempt, a motion for a mistrial based on the comments of Congresswoman Maxine Waters?
NEKIMA LEVY ARMSTRONG: I thought, like many aspects of his side of the case and the theories he presented, it did not pass the laugh test. To think that an 82-year-old congresswoman could be responsible for a mistrial really is absurd. Congresswoman Maxine Waters was well within her rights to show up in Brooklyn Center over the weekend and to stand in solidarity with those who are on the frontlines demanding justice for Daunte Wright, as well as for George Floyd.
And part of the reason for Congresswoman Waters’ comments had to do with something known as Operation Safety Net, which is, from my perspective, a reign of terror that has been implemented by the Department of Public Safety in Minnesota and several other police departments in response to the uprisings that happened last summer after George Floyd was killed. We’ve experienced tear gas, rubber bullets, flashbang grenades, arrests and violence at the hands of law enforcement in Brooklyn Center.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about another protest that happened this weekend, that you participated in, at the home of the Washington County Attorney Pete Orput, who filed second-degree manslaughter charges against the former Brooklyn Center police officer Kim Potter for the fatal shooting of Daunte Wright. Could you talk about what happened there and what Orput said to you?
NEKIMA LEVY ARMSTRONG: Yes. So, we organized a protest to go to Stillwater, Minnesota, which is about 40 minutes or so outside of the Twin Cities, to the home of Pete Orput, who is responsible for filing charges in the case of Kim Potter, in which she killed Daunte Wright. We determined that those charges are not strong enough, primarily because of what we’ve seen happen in a previous case, the case of Mohamed Noor, a Black Muslim Somali former officer who was charged with third-degree murder and convicted for killing Justine Ruszczyk Damond, a white woman, in 2017. His conviction marked the first time in Minnesota history that an officer had actually been convicted for killing a civilian. Somehow, the government was able to make the crime fit the statute, much to our surprise. And Mohamed Noor filed an appeal in that case, and the court of appeals has so far upheld his third-degree murder conviction. And so, the facts of this case involving Kim Potter are similar to the facts involving Mohamed Noor. And we do not think that manslaughter charges are enough — we’re demanding murder charges in this case — for the life of Daunte Wright, which was unnecessarily taken.
So, as we held this protest in front of the Pete Orput’s home, we had actually marched down the street, and his neighbors were standing in solidarity with us, throwing up their fists in solidarity and even chanting “Black Lives Matter.” Pete Orput thought that we had left, but we were, again, just marching down the street. And he came outside his home with his wife and started apologizing to his neighbors for our demonstration. Well, Jaylani Hussein, who has been on your show before, executive director of CAIR Minnesota, was standing there, and he called Pete Orput over and said, “Why don’t you apologize to me? Why don’t you apologize to us for the undercharging that you’ve done in this case?” So they began a dialogue. And then I walked up and got involved in the dialogue. And I let Pete Orput know that those charges were unacceptable, we were demanding murder charges, and that we would return back to his home in Stillwater until we see murder charges in this case. We cannot allow prosecutors to undercharge or not charge at all police officers who needlessly take the lives of civilians, as what we have seen in this case.