State vs. Chauvin: Week three begins with testimony

State vs. Chauvin: Week three begins with testimony Photo: WDIO File

WDIO/KSTP
Updated: April 12, 2021 06:55 PM
Created: April 12, 2021 04:12 PM

The trial of a former Minneapolis police officer charged in George Floyd's death enters its third week Monday, with the state nearing the end of a case built on searing witness accounts, official rejections of the neck restraint and expert testimony attributing Floyd's death to a lack of oxygen.

Derek Chauvin, 45, is charged with murder and manslaughter in Floyd's May 25 death. Police were called to a neighborhood market where Floyd was accused of trying to pass a counterfeit bill. Bystander video of Floyd, pinned by Chauvin and two other officers as he cried "I can't breathe" and eventually grew still, sparked protests and scattered violence around the U.S.

Chauvin attorney Eric Nelson argues that Floyd's death was caused by drug use and underlying health conditions including a bad heart. He's expected to call his own medical experts after the prosecution wraps its case, expected early this week. Nelson hasn't said whether Chauvin will testify.

- The Associated Press contributed to this story.

According to the Hubbard sister-station KSTP, the court convenes Monday, without the jury to address some motions to begin the session.

State prosecutor Steve Schleicher argued against the defense's motion to exclude their use of force expert. Defense attorney Eric Nelson argues a sixth use of force expert would be cumulative. Schleicher said this expert is an academic "and he takes an academic approach."

"Well, the court concern, we're pretty clear before is that motions in limine, we're not going to call every cop and ask him, 'what would you have done differently and basically I think the state has almost done that," Judge Peter Cahill said Monday morning. 

Schleicher also addressed "the phenomenon of auditory paranoia." This relates to when the defense asked BCA agent Reyerson if George Floyd said "I ate too many drugs." Schleicher said their expert has an expertise on the topic of auditory paranoia. Nelson said it's for the jury to decide what was said. The judge agreed, saying he was surprised that the state didn't object to Nelson's question. 

"I mean I have experience in listening to a lot of body-worn cameras, that doesn't make me an expert," Cahill said. 

The judge also stated that they will discuss Morries Hall's testimony Tuesday morning. Nelson said Hall gave an hour-long statement to a BCA agent. 

Nelson said the state does not intend to offer Hall immunity for his statements. He brought up a prior case in which a witness also invoked their Fifth Amendment privileges and the state refused immunity. 

"So in the course of this statement, he makes several incriminating statements, outside of this particular incident. As it pertains to whether he provided Mr. Floyd with the drugs, he denies it," Nelson said regarding Hall. "I think that the state has taken the position that Mr. Hall's testimony or his statement was not credible to these investigators. They have the ability to ... offer him immunity ... if their position is that the controlled substances played no part in this case."

Cahill said he will take it under advisement and will give them an answer at 1 p.m. before they bring the jurors back regarding the Hall situation. 

Additionally, Nelson also asked the court to sequester the jury due to an incident that left one dead in Brooklyn Center Sunday night.

"This incident last night, highlights, and I think brings it to the forefront of the jury's mindset that a verdict, in this case, is going to have consequences," Nelson said, asking the jury be voir dire again to ask if they know about what happened yesterday, if it will impact their decision-making process and that they may be sequestered. 

Schliecher opposed the sequestration and voir dire jurors situation. 

Cahill denied the motion to sequester the jury, noting it is a different case. Cahill said that he will not sequester the jurors until next Monday, when he anticipates closing arguments will begin.

The first witness is called to the stand by the state on Monday. Dr. Jonathan Rich, a cardiologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, is the first to address questions. 

He says he specializes in cardiology, but has a sub-specialty in advanced heart disease focused on heart failure and heart transplants.

Rich says he has experience working with cardiac patients who died from low oxygen.

"Having low oxygen levels is not uncommon, a lot of different disease processes can cause it, and low oxygen levels can be very detrimental," Rich said. He adds he also works closely with cardiac pathologists because he often takes biopsies from the inner lining of the heart. 

Dr. Rich says the cardiac pathologist he works with asks for "clinical information" to "diagnose and interpret" what he looks at under the microscope.

"In this case, Mr. Floyd died from a cardiopulmonary arrest. It was caused by low oxygen levels ... induced by the prone restraint and positional asphyxiation he was subjected to," Rich said.

He told the court he can state with a "high degree of medical certainty" that Floyd did not die from a primary heart condition or a drug overdose. 

He also said Floyd had three medical issues: hypertension/high blood pressure, anxiety and appeared to have struggled with substance abuse. Rich adds that there was no evidence to suggest that Floyd had any negative heart condition. 

"High blood pressure in itself is not a heart condition ... high blood pressure originates in the blood vessels or our bodies ... if you have a strong heart you can also generate high blood pressure," Rich says. He adds Floyd "had an exceptionally strong heart."

Rich says he has looked at videos of the incident to see how Floyd looked, whether he was talking, what he was saying and how he was walking.

"From his initial encounter, remembering particularly when he was asked to get out of his car, he appeared fearful ... I saw no indicators at that time that he was suffering from low oxygen," Rich stated. He says once Floyd was restrained on the ground, "my observations were that he was restrained in a life-threatening manner."

Rich stated that Floyd had died a "gradual" death. He says there was no evidence of a sudden cardiac death. He did not find any evidence of a heart attack on Floyd's autopsy.

"I saw no complete blockages, there were narrowing," Rich said, but added there was no description of narrowing of "the main coronary artery."

Rich explained that Floyd's heart was "likely mildly thick and mildly enlarged, which is an expected finding in somebody that has high blood pressure ... that is a normal response, the muscle is getting stronger ... allowing the heart to work, and work well."

He also reiterated that drugs were no a causation of death regarding Floyd. He called his death "absolutely preventable."

After a 20-minute recess, the court reconvened.  

The defense has started their cross-examination of Dr. Rich.

He confirmed to Nelson he is not a forensic pathologist. Nelson asked Rich if people who have a 90% blockage and die is a "pretty common occurrence," to which Rich disagreed. 

"Everyone dies eventually but not from the 90% blockage," he said, adding about the hypothetical question, "... undoubtedly people who have died from coronary events with 90% blockages or without blockages."

Nelson asked whether Floyd would have survived if he "had simply gotten in the back of the squad car?"

"Had he not been restrained in the way in which he was, I think he would've survived that day," Rich replied. Dr. Rich has been excused from the witness stand. The court has gone into recess until 1:30 p.m

The state prosecution team is expected to call two more witnesses to the stand and Cahill mentioned the court would be adjourned for the day around 4 p.m.

Judge Cahill denied a motion from the defense to have the prosecution explain why they are not granting immunity in regards to Morries Hall. The next witness — Philonise Floyd, George Floyd's brother — takes the witness stand.

The state is asking questions about George to Philonise.

He tells the court his brother was a big sports enthusiast growing up. Philonise also said George was very close to their mother. 

"It was one of a kind ... he was a big mama's boy ... he showed us how to treat our mom and how to respect our mom, he just loved her so dearly," he said.

The defense declines to cross-examine this witness, having him excused. 

After Philonise was excused, state prosecutor Steve Schilecher calls Seth Stoughton to the witness stand. Stoughton is a University of South Carolina School of Law professor and is a use of force expert. 

Prior to his career in law, Stoughton was previously a law enforcement officer in Florida, including time spent with the Tallahassee Police Department. He also served as an investigator in the Florida Department of Education. During that time, he finished his undergrad and then attended law school at the University of Virginia.

Stoughton says he has been retained as an expert witness about 60 times. 

 Stoughton was asked what factors he uses when reviewing use of force incidents. 

"... Applying generally accepted police practices, what we might call a national or professional standard for the way we expect ... officers to engage with individuals and use of force," he said. 

He also explained the different types of resistance and what an officer comes across. 

Body camera footage was shown in court.

Stoughton also testified that there was no reason to pin Floyd to the pavement on his stomach because he was handcuffed, already had been searched and didn't pose a threat of escape or harm to the officers.

"I don't see him presenting a threat of anything," Stoughton said. "There's no specific, articulable facts that ... a reasonable officer in the defendant's position could use to conclude that he had the intention of causing physical harm to the officers or others."

Stoughton's testimony — including that officers should have known that pressing a knee to someone's neck could cause serious injury or death — is similar to that offered by previous witnesses. But it gave prosecutors a chance to again play several snippets of body-camera video of Floyd's pleas for help.

Court has adjourned for the day at 4:30 p.m.. 

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