The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Judge considers whether to allow mention of George Floyd’s 2019 arrest as jury selection in the Chauvin trial nears finish

Placeholder while article actions load

MINNEAPOLIS — The attorney for Derek Chauvin, the former police officer charged with murder in the death of George Floyd, has renewed a push to introduce into evidence a previous encounter Floyd had with Minneapolis police where he exhibited similar behavior to the May 2020 incident that left him dead.

Hennepin County District Judge Peter A. Cahill had previously blocked Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, from mentioning the May 6, 2019, incident at trial but is reconsidering the issue along with several pretrial defense motions, including one that would limit the prosecution testimony of a forensic psychiatrist who is expected to talk about Floyd’s reaction to officers at the 2020 scene.

On Thursday, Cahill heard arguments from both sides over the expected testimony of Sarah Vinson, a physician who specializes in psychiatry, who is being called by prosecutors to talk about how humans respond to stress and traumatic scenes and what symptoms of anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder look like.

The defense has sought to limit Vinson’s testimony, arguing her analysis of Floyd is “speculative” and not based on scientific fact, while prosecutors say she is being called to rebut defense claims about Floyd’s behavior at the scene, including that he was resisting arrest.

Jerry Blackwell, a special prosecutor in the case, told Cahill they want Vinson “to talk about the way that a human being would respond to a traumatic event.”

“Floyd had only recently had a gun put in his face and the risk of having, frankly, his head blown off over the investigation of a fake $20 bill by the police,” Blackwell said. “That is a situation that would cause trauma to any human being. And so how he responds to that, the feeling that he was going to die if he were put into the squad car, which he said repeatedly, how would a general human being respond to that from an anxiety point of view?”

Both issues, which Cahill is expected to rule on Friday, highlight key points of arguments in the case. Prosecutors contend that Chauvin’s treatment of Floyd, including pinning his knee into the man’s neck for more than nine minutes while he was handcuffed and held face down on a South Minneapolis street, went beyond the necessary use of force and was a “substantial causal factor” in his death.

Chauvin’s defense, meanwhile, has argued that Floyd’s health issues and a high level of drugs in his system at the time of his arrest killed him, not the pressure from Chauvin’s knee, and that Floyd’s own actions led to his death.

The developments came as the court picked three more jurors in the case Thursday, bringing the number of seated jurors to 12. The court now needs just two alternates — though Cahill has said he could seek up to four.

Chauvin faces charges of second- and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in Floyd’s death. Three other officers charged in the case — J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas K. Lane and Tou Thao — are to be tried separately in August.

Nelson has also pressed Cahill to reconsider allowing the 2019 incident between Floyd and Minneapolis police to be presented to the jury — arguing Floyd’s history of drug use and behavior during encounters with police make it relevant to his client’s case.

The previous encounter occurred after Minneapolis police stopped a car in which Floyd was riding. Body camera footage released in the case last fall shows Floyd did not immediately comply with police requests to put his hands on the dash and appeared to be swallowing pills instead. The police responded aggressively. One officer pulled a gun and another brandished a stun gun while trying to get Floyd out of the car, as the man began crying and begging officers not to shoot him.

Unlike the 2020 incident — which ultimately ended with Floyd restrained on the ground — the 2019 arrest de-escalated quickly. Within moments, Floyd complied. He was handcuffed and then seated in a police car without any violence. Later, while in custody, Floyd acknowledged that he was addicted to painkillers and had swallowed as many as eight Percocet pills — a powerful prescription narcotic. Police called for help getting him to a hospital and emergency workers were seriously concerned about his elevated blood pressure, according to transcripts filed into evidence last fall.

Nelson this week called the two separate incidents “remarkably similar” and argued the 2019 arrest is more relevant because of newly discovered evidence in Chauvin’s case.

In December, investigators with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension conducted a second search of the car Floyd was sitting in when officers approached him in May and recovered pills that were tested and found to include fentanyl. Fragments of chewed-up pills containing methamphetamine and Floyd’s DNA were found in a January search of the squad car into which Chauvin and the other three officers at the scene had attempted to put Floyd.

Nelson has argued the 2019 incident should be admitted on medical grounds as proof of how Floyd’s body responded to drugs that he admitted he had taken. He called attention to how responding emergency workers told Floyd they were so concerned about his high blood pressure that they worried he might have a heart attack.

Last summer, Hennepin County Chief Medical Examiner Andrew Baker formally declared Floyd’s death a homicide, listing “cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression” as the cause of death. Baker later told the FBI that Floyd’s heart and lungs stopped “due to the combined effects of his health problems as well as the exertion and restraint involved in Floyd’s interaction with police before being on the ground.”

Cahill seemed open to admitting the 2019 incident on Nelson’s medical arguments. But prosecutors strongly opposed, arguing the “real motivations” of the defense were to sully Floyd’s character and blame him for his own death.

“The desperations of the defense to just sort of smear Mr. Floyd’s character by showing that he struggled with an opioid addiction, like so many Americans do, is really just evidence of bad character,” said Matthew Frank, an assistant Minnesota attorney general who is leading the prosecution’s case. “Because he acted that way once before, it proves he acted this way in May 2020 during a much different confrontation by Minneapolis police officers than in May 2019.”

Frank urged Cahill to consider “what is the defense really offering this evidence for?”

Cahill is considering these issues at the same time he weighs requests from Chauvin’s attorney to delay the case and reconsider a change-of-venue motion because of publicity related to a $27 million civil settlement announced last week between the city of Minneapolis and Floyd’s family. The judge said he would announce rulings Friday on these motions as well as the admissibility of Vinson’s testimony and Floyd’s 2019 arrest.

Nelson said he is “gravely concerned” the settlement announcement has tainted the jury pool and has repeatedly questioned the “suspicious timing” of the agreement, arguing it has made it impossible for his client to receive a fair trial. Cahill has described the defense’s claims as “legitimate” and has publicly criticized city officials for talking about the case.

At a news conference Thursday, Minneapolis officials defended their handling of the settlement and the timing of its announcement. “In general, there is no good timing to settle any case, particularly one as complex and involved and sensitive as this,” City Attorney Jim Rowader said. “There’s no guarantee, for instance, that that deal would be available two, four, six, eight weeks from now.”

But Rowader admitted the settlement is not yet final because the paperwork needs to be vetted by the city and Floyd’s family and then approved by a federal judge — a process he said could take at least a month.

Mayor Jacob Frey, a civil rights attorney, said he “disagreed with the underlying premise” that the settlement had affected Chauvin’s trial but declined to comment further, citing requests from Cahill to stop talking about the case.

In court, Nelson quickly seized on those comments, questioning the motives of city officials and whether the settlement announcement "was necessary” given the agreement was not final and would not be for weeks.

“I would note that the city of Minneapolis has indicated that the timing was of the essence. Yet the agreement is not yet final, has not been finalized and will not be finalized for approximately another month,” Nelson said.

Prosecutors complained about Nelson’s comments, prompting a fiery exchange between the attorneys and Cahill, who angrily ordered all the parties involved to “stop talking about it.”

“I’ve asked Minneapolis to stop talking about it. They keep talking about it. We keep talking about it. Everybody just stop talking about it,” Cahill said. “Let me decide what the ramifications are. Are we clear on this?”

The court added three jurors to the panel Thursday: a White woman in her 50s identified as Juror No. 89, a Black woman in her 60s known as Juror No. 91, and a White woman in her 40s known as Juror No. 92.

So far the jury includes one Black woman; two multiracial women; two White men, four White women and three Black men.