Chauvin trial day 1

I have been struggling with a bug that has sapped my energy and shortened my day yesterday. These notes are accordingly abbreviated.

On Sunday I complained that the Star Tribune sought to bypass the issues in the case in the interest of framing it as a (racial) passion play. The Star Tribune is of course not alone in this regard, but is it really needed or illuminating at this point?

The Sunday page-one story I cited was written by reporters Reid Forgrave and Maya Rao. On Monday, however, the Star Tribune published reporter Chao Xiong’s examination of the cause of death issue in George Floyd’s cause of death at heart of arguments in Chauvin trial.”

When I saw Chao yesterday morning I congratulated Chao on the story. He told me he had a hard time finding people who would talk to him for it. Given my comments on Sunday, I want to note it for the record.

All fifteen jurors selected showed up to sit on the case yesterday morning. Judge Cahill dismissed the fifteenth juror selected before swearing the fourteen in. The fifteenth was the third alternate.

In my rundown on the jury on Sunday, I assumed that the first twelve jurors serve as the regulars who will deliberate on the verdict if they make it to the end and that jurors thirteen and fourteen are alternates. I assume that to be true even though no such announcement has been made.

Jerry Blackwell is one of the attorneys contributing his services to the prosecution without charge. He made the opening statement on behalf of the State yesterday. I have embedded it below. [UPDATE: I have removed it. YouTube has made it inaccessible by embed. It can be viewed by clicking here.]

Although I was surprised by his detached tone, I thought Blackwell did an excellent job. I was not surprised by his use of the famous bystander video that everyone has seen.

An opening statement is not argument. It is to be limited to a summary of the evidence that will be introduced in the case. It should provide a roadmap to the case the attorney will present to the jury.

The underlying message of Blackwell’s opening is that the State has a ton of evidence they will introduce to prove up the charges against Derek Chauvin. Among the witnesses who will testify against Chauvin are the Minneapolis Chief of Police and other Minneapolis police officers.

The theme of his opening was a relentless: 9:29. Nine minutes and 29 seconds is the length of time Chauvin had his knee on George Floyd’s neck.

Blackwell buried the issue of Floyd’s drug intoxication at the time of the incident until somewhere near the end of his remarks. According to Blackwell, Floyd’s years of drug abuse had rendered him tolerant of the levels found in his system following his death.

Blackwell anticipated and undercut the testimony of Hennepin County Medical Examiner Andrew Baker. He will call a raft of experts to deal with it, including a doctor who trained Dr. Baker as medical examiner.

Blackwell’s opening went on for around 55 minutes. Although there was thematic repetition, the themes were effective and the substance was powerful.

Defense counsel Eric Nelson immediately followed Blackwell. I have embedded the video below.

When Nelson rose to speak I wanted to hear what his case was — what he would prove on behalf of Chauvin. Nelson began, however, by invoking reasonable doubt. This is a confession of weakness. I cannot imagine a weaker point with which to lead off.

Nelson did nothing to set the video in the larger context afforded by the body cam videos. He did nothing to exploit the holes in Blackwell’s opening. Maybe they aren’t holes.

Nelson discussed the evidence of Floyd’s drug intoxication and consumption at the time of the incident. The prosecution contends that Chauvin asphyxiated Floyd. Nelson referred to the paucity of physical evidence on autopsy supporting asphyxiation. The State wasn’t satisfied with Baker’s work, he said, so they contracted other physicians for this case.

Nelson finished in about 23 minutes. All in all, I thought it was a perfunctory performance.

Following the opening statements the State called three witnesses. The first was dispatcher Jena Scurry. The direct examination by Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank was a plodding bore, but she was a good witness for the State. Watching the scene unfold at 38th and Chicago on a video monitor in her office, she thought “something wasn’t right.” She called the cops — MPR sergeant David Fleeker (I’m not sure how his name is spelled) on the cops.

Next up was bystander Alisha Oyler, who was working on May 25 at the Speedway Station across the street from Cup Foods. Although she took several videos, she professed not to remember much about the events. Are you kidding me? She was a terrible witness except insofar as she gave the State the opportunity to replay the famous bystander video by juxtaposing it with Oyler’s.

At this point I headed off for an urgent care visit. I watched the testimony of martial arts expert Donald Williams II on my cell phone. Williams was a bystander on the scene at the time of the incident. He can be heard on the video. I didn’t realize that martial arts experience made him an expert on cause of death, but he opined on the “blood choke” he observed Chauvin working on Floyd. He watched it kill him like a fish.

Williams’s testimony beyond his observations at the time are objectionable in my opinion, [UPDATE: but Judge Cahill disagrees. See his order on defendant’s motions in limine paragraph 22. I regret this oversight in my original comments here. Consistent with his ruling, Judge Cahill struck Williams’s assertion that Chauvin’s choke killed Floyd, but the jury heard it.]

This guy is a devastating witness for the State. Williams continues this morning.

NOTE: In the interest of clarity I have retitled my previous 12 installments to reflect their focus on jury selection. I am starting the numerical sequence over with this installment to reflect the first day of the trial proper.

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