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Defense Presents Closing Arguments In Derek Chauvin Trial

Defense attorney Eric Nelson gives his closing arguments Monday in the trial of former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin.
Defense attorney Eric Nelson gives his closing arguments Monday in the trial of former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin.

Updated April 19, 2021 at 4:11 PM ET

The defense made its closing arguments Monday in former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin's murder trial in the death of George Floyd.

Chauvin is facing counts of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

Defense lawyer Eric Nelson began by discussing the presumption of innocence and the state's burden of proving Chauvin's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

"Compare the evidence against itself. Test it, challenge it," Nelson said. Start from the point of the presumption of innocence and see how far the state can get, he suggested to the jury — and he argued that the prosecution had failed to meet its burden.

If the state is "missing any one single element, it is a not guilty verdict," Nelson said.

Prosecutors have said that Chauvin's use of force was not reasonable and contrary to his police training. Nelson's arguments focused how "a reasonable police officer" would have handled the situation to make the case that Chauvin acted reasonably.

He pointed to the dispatch report, with its changes in codes and information over the course of a few minutes. It shows "how quickly a situation can change from second to second, minute to minute," Nelson said. "The situation is dynamic and it's fluid."

A reasonable officer would conclude that the amount of force used by the two other officers was insufficient to overpower Floyd's resistance to get into the car, Nelson said, and decide that additional force was necessary.

Nelson showed different officers' bodycam footage to illustrate their views of what was happening. Chauvin and two other officers struggled with Floyd for a little over a minute.

"A reasonable officer would understand this situation. That Mr. Floyd was able to overcome the efforts of three police officers while handcuffed, with his legs and his body strength," Nelson said.

Nelson showed footage from a city camera mounted on the corner that the 911 dispatcher could see, showing officers struggling to force Floyd into the squad car.

None of the use-of-force experts said anything that happened up to the moment that Floyd was put on the ground was contrary to policy training and tactics, or was unreasonable, Nelson said.

The defense attorney objected to the state's focus on the nine minutes and 29 seconds that Chauvin was on top of Floyd.

"It's not the proper analysis," Nelson said. "Because the nine minutes and 29 seconds ignores the previous 16 minutes and 59 seconds [of the police interaction with Floyd]. 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," Nelson said.

Critical decision-making comes into play then, Nelson said, with officers constantly reevaluating the situation.

He showed bodycam footage while Chauvin had Floyd restrained of officers discussing whether to use a different restraint technique and whether Floyd might be under the influence of drugs.

He also pointed to testimony from a police witness who said sometimes people feign medical problems when arrested because they don't want to go to jail. A reasonable police officer takes that experience into consideration, Nelson said.

The defense lawyer showed footage of other officers responding to Floyd's exclamations of "I can't breathe" with the reply, "You're talking." Nelson said the comments demonstrated the idea that "if you can talk, you can breathe," which he said is a common view among reasonable police officers.

Nelson showed a portion of the video where Floyd's leg suddenly bends. Pulmonologist Martin Tobin testified for the prosecution at that point Floyd had an anoxic seizure, suggesting low oxygen levels in his brain.

But Nelson said an officer does not have the same medical training or the time with lots of video of the event to know that. "Does a reasonable police officer even know what an anoxic seizure is? A reasonable police officer will interpret this as at least some form of minimal resistance," Nelson said.

"It's tragic," Nelson repeatedly admitted. "It's tragic. It is tragic."

Nelson argued that use of force can appear ugly to bystanders, pointing to testimony saying that police officers tend to know this. "Reasonable police officers are aware when they're using force that sometimes what they're doing does not look good to the general public," he said.

He also made a case that Chauvin would not do something unlawful when he knew his actions were being recorded: "Do you do something purposefully, that you know is a unlawful use of force when you have four body-worn cameras immediately in the area, where you have multiple civilians videotaping you? Where you know your actions are being reviewed through a city-owned camera, where there are surveillance cameras? Do people do things intentionally and purposely when they know they're being watched?"

Nelson said that everything that's been discussed of the incident "does not reflect an intent to purposefully, intentionally commit an unlawful use of force. All of the evidence shows that Mr. Chauvin thought he was following his training. He was in fact following his training. He was following Minneapolis Police Department policies," Nelson said. "It all demonstrates a lack of intent."

"There is absolutely no evidence that Officer Chauvin intentionally, purposefully applied unlawful force."

Nelson argued that Floyd's death was not the natural result of the defendant's actions, adding that the state had failed to prove otherwise.

Despite testimony from six medical expert witnesses by the prosecution, who all said Floyd died of asphyxiation caused by Chauvin's knee on Floyd's neck, Nelson said that conclusion "flies in the absolute face of reason and common sense."

It is especially difficult to believe, he noted, when reviewing the autopsy report prepared by the Hennepin County medical examiner, Dr. Andrew Baker, one of the prosecution's witnesses. Baker said he intentionally refrained from watching any videos capturing Floyd's arrest because he did not want it to "bias or influence his report," Nelson said.

In the final document, Nelson noted, "[Baker] specifically testified that there was no evidence of asphyxia." Neither was there any physical evidence of hemorrhaging, bruising or life-threatening injuries to Floyd's neck or back, and that when he did view the video, it didn't appear as if Chauvin's knee affected the structures of Floyd's neck because he was still able to move it around.

Nelson reminded jurors of what Baker did find in Floyd's body: an enlarged heart, narrow arteries and low levels of fentanyl and methamphetamine.

Chauvin's attorney conceded that, in the end, Baker ruled Floyd's death as a homicide, but he read aloud to the jury that the medical definition of a homicide classification "is a 'neutral' term and neither indicates nor implies criminal intent."

Baker said Floyd's death was a "multi-factoral process," meaning no single factor played any greater role than any other, Nelson summarized.

Showing another clip of Floyd with his left shoulder pinned to the ground and his hands cuffed begging for his mother and asking the men on top of him to tell his kids he loves them, Nelson asked. "What do you really see?"

"You see a person who is on his side, being held in the side recovery position whose hand is touching the ground and the tire at times. You cannot take a single isolated frame and reach any conclusions because much like use of force, cause of death has to be considered in the totality of the circumstances," Nelson told the jury.

Judge Peter Cahill interrupted Nelson after the defense attorney addressed jurors for more than two hours and 30 minutes, and, according to a reporter in the courtroom, jurors appeared tired and fidgeting

Nelson resumed his closing arguments after a brief lunch break.

The prosecution had already laid out its closing arguments to the jury, saying that Chauvin directly caused the death of Floyd last Memorial Day after kneeling on his neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds.

Floyd was not in perfect health, and he was under stress, prosecutor Steve Schleicher told the court earlier Monday.

"But none of this caused George Floyd's heart to fail. It did not," the prosecutor said. "His heart failed because the defendant's use of force, the 9:29, that deprived Mr. Floyd of the oxygen that he needed, that humans need, to live."

In wrapping up his address, Nelson again asked the jury to consider all the evidence presented over the last few weeks.

"When you review the entirety of the evidence, when you review the law, as written and you conclude it all within this, all within a thorough and honest analysis, the state has failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt," Nelson said. "Therefore, Mr. Chauvin should be found not guilty of all counts."

NPR's Merrit Kennedy contributed to this report.

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