“Believe your eyes. What you saw happen, happened.”

Those few words from Special Assistant Attorney General Steve Schleicher summed up the prosecution’s long and detailed closing argument in the trial of Derek Chauvin. If jurors in Minneapolis can bring themselves to believe what they see and hear in the videos of George Floyd’s killing, Chauvin will be found guilty. But if the jury gets lost in the fog of make-believe cast by Chauvin’s defense, the now-fired police officer could walk free.

All we can do now is wait and worry. No one ever knows what any given jury will do. If the Chauvin jury wants to strike a resounding blow for justice, though, prosecutors have given them a mighty sledgehammer. 

For me, the most striking moments in Schleicher’s presentation were when he focused tightly on the two men involved, Floyd and Chauvin. He tried to give the members of the jury a sense of what was going on in their minds when their lives intersected — and Floyd’s life ended — last May 25.

Schleicher began by stating Floyd’s full name, George Perry Floyd Jr., and reprising testimony by his girlfriend and his brother about what a gentle “mama’s boy” he was. The prosecutor repeated several times that Floyd was suspected of passing a counterfeit $20 bill, a nonviolent offense for which suspects are rarely cuffed and slammed into the back seats of squad cars.

He reminded jurors that the encounter began when a different officer — who also faces criminal charges — approached Floyd’s car with his gun aimed at Floyd’s face, which was obviously terrifying. Schleicher explained that Floyd was not resisting arrest but experiencing claustrophobic anxiety about being shoved into the patrol car. And he pointed out that when Chauvin and the other officers brought Floyd back out of the car, Floyd politely told them “thank you.”

In a poignant, awful detail, Schleicher noted that while Floyd was on the pavement with Chauvin’s knee on his neck, desperately pushing up with his knuckles and even his face “to give his lungs room to breathe,” he kept calling Chauvin “Mr. Officer” as he tried to make the policeman understand that he was desperate for air.

“He asked for help with his very last breath,” Schleicher said. “But ‘Mr. Officer’ did not help.” 

As for Chauvin’s state of mind, Schleicher said jurors should make reasonable inferences from the way he defiantly stared at the onlookers who were complaining to him that his knee was snuffing out Floyd’s life.

It was “his ego, his pride,” Schleicher said. Chauvin “was not going to be told what to do. He was going to do what he wanted to do, how he wanted to do it, for as long as he wanted.” 

I have always seen Chauvin’s actions as only partly aimed at Floyd. I’ve always thought he was showing those bystanders who was in charge of the streets of Minneapolis, who had power and who did not. That is not the kind of demonstration police departments have a right to make to the citizens they are sworn to serve and protect. It is the way an army of occupation might intimidate its conquests into submission.

Defense lawyer Eric Nelson, in his closing argument, did his job as well as he could. He sought to portray the abortive attempt to put Floyd into the squad car as a desperate life-or-death struggle — even though Floyd was already handcuffed, and none of the officers appears to have suffered any injury. Nelson tried to make the small group of passersby who stopped to document Floyd’s last moments and beg for his life into an angry, threatening mob. And he insisted that Chauvin only did what he had been trained to do, despite unambiguous testimony to the contrary from numerous prosecution witnesses, including Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo.

Nelson argued that a “reasonable police officer” would have done the same things Chauvin did. He even argued that a “reasonable officer” would see a jerking motion of Floyd’s right leg — described by an expert prosecution witness as an “anoxic seizure” due to the lack of oxygen reaching Floyd’s brain — not as Floyd’s death-throes but as an act of “resistance.” Good lord. If Derek Chauvin is truly a “reasonable police officer,” there is no better illustration for just how unreasonable American policing has become.

By design, our justice system puts a thumb on the scale in favor of the defense, which does not have to prove anything. And in practice, our system further tends to give police officers a very generous benefit of the doubt.

The problem is that the whole world has seen what happened to George Floyd. Are the eyes of the jurors open, or are they closed?

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