The bystander video of Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd's neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds gave prosecutors a star witness for the Hennepin County murder case against the fired officer.
Prosecutors played the video in opening statements, telling jurors to trust what they saw. The globally viral video of Floyd's life draining away as he cried "Mama" landed an emotional gut punch.
Then prosecutors brought the crime to life over the trial's first three days with a series of anguished eyewitnesses taking the witness stand. There was the 61-year-old man from the neighborhood, several teenage girls with cellphones, a 9-year-old girl out to buy snacks with her cousin, a dad who spent the day fishing and the 18-year-old Cup Foods clerk haunted because he told his boss that the $20 bill Floyd used to buy cigarettes was a fake.
Minneapolis criminal defense lawyer Fred Goetz said the overwhelming heartbreak of the eyewitnesses pulled the jurors right into the scene.
"Once that powerful emotional connection was made, the defense certainly had great challenges in overcoming that with a rational evidence-based argument," Goetz said. "When you make a powerful first emotional impression, it's exceedingly difficult to get a jury to put that aside."
Several legal analysts said prosecutors came into the trial with the evidence on their side, and used it flawlessly. After the eyewitnesses, they called a series of high-ranking police officers to the stand who denounced Chauvin. Then came medical experts who deftly explained the science of how the lungs and heart work.
Retired Hennepin County District Judge Kevin Burke said prosecutors in the case provided "compelling evidence" and made no mistakes. He praised the prosecution's tone, calling it "respectful."
Carolyn Grose, a professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, said prosecutors weren't heavy-handed. They let the community and the evidence "speak for itself," she said. "The defense was saying, 'Don't believe what you see. The jury's bottom line was, 'No, we believe what we see.' "
Also significant, she said, was "getting the other cops to make an indictment of one of their own."
Sheila Bedi, professor and director of the Community Justice and Civil Rights Clinic at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law in Chicago, said the video itself "was just so brutal that the defense was asking the jury to not believe its eyes and that was impossible for the jury to do."
While it's become increasingly common for the public to see video captured by police body-worn cameras, the bystander video provided the unique perspective of Chauvin and Floyd together. Their reactions in the video obliterated the possibility of Chauvin successfully using the "reasonable officer" defense because it was clear that neither Floyd nor the crowd were threats, Bedi said.
"The reasonable police officer standard has excused brutal acts for so long," she said.
University of Minnesota Law Prof. Jon Lee also said the prosecution team of Jerry Blackwell, Steve Schleicher, Matthew Frank and Erin Eldridge told a compelling narrative about Floyd throughout the trial. They put the jury "in the position of George Floyd" by walking them through his life, loves and struggles — and then contrasted that with the "lack of humanity" shown by Chauvin, he said.
Lee said the string of police officers, including Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, condemning Chauvin's actions gave the jury permission to condemn him as well. He also had high praise for the state's medical experts, who talked about complex issues in ways that were easy to understand.
The state's main argument was that Floyd died from a lack of oxygen because of the restraint from Chauvin and two other officers set to stand trial in August.
The jury apparently didn't give credence to the defense's two main claims, that Floyd died from pre-existing medical issues and that Chauvin behaved as a reasonable officer would under the circumstances.
Defense lawyer Ryan Pacyga said it was a hard case for defense lawyer Eric Nelson from the beginning. Pacyga said Nelson's attempt to blame the crowd for distracting Chauvin was a dicey move that didn't work.
To drive home the claim that Chauvin acted reasonably, Pacyga said the fired officer needed to take the stand to explain what was going on in his head as he knelt on Floyd. "He's the only one in the world that knows," Pacyga said.
Pacyga conceded it would have been risky, but that Chauvin didn't have much to lose. "He was already the most hated man in America," Pacyga said. "If they don't believe him and they hate him anyway, what have you lost?"
Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747