Editor’s note: The video in this story contains graphic material.
MINNEAPOLIS — In a victory for the defense, the judge overseeing the murder trial of Derek Chauvin will allow the former police officer’s attorney to tell the jury about a 2019 encounter between George Floyd and Minneapolis police where they allege Floyd exhibited behavior similar to his actions in the 2020 incident in which he died.
Hennepin County District Court Judge Peter A. Cahill had previously barred Chauvin’s defense team from mentioning Floyd’s May 6, 2019, arrest — an incident for which Floyd was never formally charged — describing it as “irrelevant” to the criminal case in which Chauvin is charged in Floyd’s death.
But days into jury selection for Chauvin’s trial, Cahill reversed himself after defense attorney Eric Nelson argued that Floyd’s documented drug use and behavior toward police in the 2019 incident are relevant to his central argument that it was Floyd’s health problems and the level of drugs in his system that killed him, not the pressure from Chauvin’s knee on his neck during the encounter on May 25, 2020.
Still, Cahill put strict limits on what the defense can say and show to the jury about the 2019 incident, which was captured on police body camera video. In a written ruling, the judge said he would allow Chauvin’s defense to talk only about Floyd’s physical condition at the scene and present a two-minute clip of video showing his arrest — a decision that prosecutors strongly opposed, saying it is an attempt to taint Floyd’s character in the minds of the jurors.
The previous encounter occurred after Minneapolis police, acting on an informant’s tip, stopped a car in which Floyd was riding. Body camera footage filed as evidence in the case last fall shows Floyd did not immediately comply with police requests to put his hands on the dashboard and that he appeared to be swallowing pills. The officers on the scene responded aggressively — one pointed a gun and another brandished a stun gun — as they tried to get Floyd out of the car, prompting Floyd to begin crying and begging officers not to shoot him.
Unlike in the 2020 incident — which ultimately ended with Floyd restrained on the ground — the 2019 arrest de-escalated quickly. Within moments, Floyd complied and was placed into a squad car without resistance. Later, while in custody, Floyd told officers he was addicted to painkillers and had swallowed as many as eight tablets of Percocet — a powerful prescription narcotic. Police called an ambulance, and emergency workers who arrived at the scene were so concerned about Floyd’s elevated blood pressure that they thought he was on the verge of having a heart attack, according to transcripts filed in evidence last fall.
Nelson has described the 2019 and 2020 incidents as “remarkably similar” and has argued that the previous arrest is relevant because of newly discovered evidence in the Chauvin case — including fragments of chewed-up pills containing methamphetamine and Floyd’s DNA that were discovered in a January search of the squad car into which Chauvin and the other three officers at the scene had attempted to put Floyd.
Chauvin’s attorney had sought to argue that Floyd’s similar emotional reaction to the police in the 2019 case showed he had a “modus operandi” when confronted by officers — but Cahill ruled that was not relevant. But he did agree with Nelson that the incident was relevant in that it offers proof of how Floyd’s body responded to drugs he admitted he had taken.
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” — a finding the defense says it will vigorously challenge.