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Chauvin trial: Witnesses tell of anger, helplessness watching Floyd die

By Jon Collins, Brandt Williams, Matt Sepic and Riham Feshir, Minnesota Public Radio News

Bystanders who witnessed George Floyd die in police custody last May delivered sometimes emotional testimony Tuesday in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the ex-Minneapolis police officer facing murder and manslaughter charges in his killing.

Derek Chauvin

Several spoke of feeling angry and powerless as they watched Chauvin press his knee into Floyd’s neck to subdue him as the man lay face down and handcuffed on the street.

Off-duty Minneapolis firefighter Genevieve Hansen repeatedly urged the officers to let her provide medical attention to Floyd after coming upon the scene in south Minneapolis as she walked home.

She told the court she felt helpless because “there is a man being killed” and in other circumstances in her job, “I would’ve been able to provide medical attention to the best of my abilities, and this human was denied that right.”

Chauvin defense attorney Eric Nelson pressed Hansen on whether she’d be able to do her job as a firefighter if people were yelling at or threatening her. She responded that she “would be confident in doing her job” and wouldn’t be distracted.

The cross-examination became tense at times, with Nelson asking Hansen why she used profanity and whether people at the scene were angry: “I don’t know if you’ve seen anyone be killed but it’s upsetting,” Hansen responded.

Later, after Cahill dismissed the jury, he told Hansen to only answer the questions as asked. “Do not argue with the court, do not argue with counsel, answer the questions you’ve been asked, do not volunteer additional information.”

Chauvin and other officers came on the south Minneapolis scene after a Cup Foods clerk called to say a man had passed a phony $20 bill to buy cigarettes. Chauvin kept his knee pressed against a prone Floyd for about 9 minutes as the man pleaded that he couldn’t breathe.

The case is expected to hinge on who or what is responsible for Floyd’s death. Prosecutors allege Chauvin’s use of force killed Floyd, while the defense argues that drugs in Floyd’s system together with his prior medical problems are to blame.

‘Like he knew it was over for him’

Other witnesses included three teens and a 9-year-old whose identities were shielded by Judge Peter Cahill given their youth and the intensity of the high-profile case. None appeared on camera.

Among them was Darnella Frazier, whose riveting video showed Derek Chauvin pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck as the man lay face down and handcuffed on the street. She had previously received a public award for the video.

“I heard George Floyd say, ‘I can’t breathe, please get off of me. I can’t breathe.’ He cried for his mom. He was in pain, and it was like he knew it was over for him,” she told the court. “He was terrified, he was suffering. This was a cry for help.”

Another teen who took video told the court that she felt like she’d failed Floyd because she couldn’t intervene. “I felt like there wasn’t anything I could as a bystander.”

“You could see in his face that he was not being able to breathe, his eyes were rolling back,” the 17-year-old said, but an officer was “pushing the crowd back, making sure that everyone was on the sidewalk and didn’t get close.”

The prosecution played clips of the video and asked her questions about what happened. At one point she said she wanted to leave the scene but felt compelled to stay and document what the police were doing.

“I knew that it was wrong, and I couldn’t just walk away, even though I couldn’t do anything about it,” she said.

Nelson, the defense attorney, pressed the witness on comments she made to investigators that she saw officers check Floyd’s pulse “multiple times.”

She said she didn’t remember that, but believes they did check for his pulse.

Nelson, who has argued that officers faced a hostile crowd, asked her if she’d been angry at the time. She said yes, but later told prosecutors that she and others didn’t physically intervene.

‘He didn’t care’

Frazier, 18, said she was walking to a convenience store with her younger cousin when she came upon the officers, and sent the girl into the store because she didn’t want her to see “a man terrified, scared, begging for his life.”

Frazier grew emotional at times, breathing heavily and crying as she viewed pictures of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd last May. Frazier said of Chauvin: “He just stared at us, looked at us. He had like this cold look, heartless. He didn’t care. It seemed as if he didn’t care what we were saying.”

Nelson, Chauvin’s attorney, sought to show that Chauvin and his fellow officers found themselves in an increasingly tense and distracting situation, with the growing crowd of onlookers becoming agitated and menacing over Floyd’s treatment.

But when Frazier was asked by a prosecutor whether she saw violence anywhere on the scene, she replied: “Yes, from the cops.”

When asked to identify the officer, Chauvin stood up in the courtroom and took off his mask, appearing somber as he looked down and away before putting his mask on.

Frazier said through tears that the incident changed her life.

“When I look at George Floyd, I look at my dad, I look at my brothers, I look at my cousins, my uncles. Because they are all Black,” she said. “I look at how that could have been one of them. It’s been nights, I stayed up apologizing and apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more, and not physically interacting, and not saving his life.”

‘I believe I witnessed a murder’

Earlier, a prosecution witness who was at the scene testified that he called 911 to report Chauvin’s behavior in Floyd’s arrest, convinced that Chauvin had killed the man in his custody.

“I believe I witnessed a murder. I felt the need to call the police on the police,” Donald Williams told the court.

Williams, 33 was one of the most vocal bystanders on the sidewalk during Floyd’s arrest outside Cup Foods in south Minneapolis. He can be heard on bystander video loudly admonishing Chauvin for keeping his knee pressed against Floyd’s neck as Floyd pleads that he can’t breathe.

Williams testified neither he nor anyone else in the crowd threatened any of the officers, that he stepped back onto the curb at the direction of officer Thao, who was running crowd control. Nelson, the defense attorney, had suggested on Monday that the officers were forced to “divert their attention from the care of Mr. Floyd” because the crowd was becoming a threat.

As he watched the scene unfold, Williams said he felt like Floyd was “very much in danger.” Williams, who is Black, continued that thought, saying he saw in Floyd “another man like me, controlled in a way …,” before the judge cut him off.

Williams became emotional, wiping away tears as he heard his voice when the prosecution played audio of the 911 call. “He just pretty much just killed this guy that wasn’t resisting arrest,” he says on the audio, referring to “officer 987,” Chauvin’s badge number.

During his cross-examination, Nelson asked Williams if he became angrier and angrier as Floyd lay prone on the ground under the weight of Chauvin and two other officers.

“That’s for you to perceive,” Williams said. Then he added, “I grew in control and professionalism.”

Nelson persisted and read from a transcript from an interview Williams gave to the FBI last year. “In that that statement you said, ‘like I really wanted to beat the s—- out of the police officers,’” Nelson said.

“Yeah, I did. That’s what I felt,” Williams said.

“You were angry,” Nelson said.

“No, you can’t paint me out as angry,” Williams said calmly. “I was in a position where I had to be controlled. Controlled professionalism. I wasn’t angry.”

Williams told the court on Monday that his mixed martial arts training made it clear to him that Floyd’s breathing was becoming a life-or-death issue. “His breathing was getting tremendously heavy. You could see him struggling to actually gasp for air.”

He described Chauvin’s knee positioned on Floyd’s neck in a particular way as a technique he said he recognized from his martial arts work and that the officer was occasionally moving his knee for greater effect, which he described as a “blood choke.”

Opening statements show trial’s path

Chauvin’s trial began Monday with a prosecutor telling the jury that Chauvin’s use of force to restrain Floyd while the man was in police custody was excessive and led to Floyd’s death.

“Mr. Floyd was in handcuffs. He was completely in the control of the police. He was defenseless,” prosecutor Jerry Blackwell told the jury. He described Chauvin’s conduct as “an assault that contributed to taking (Floyd’s) life.”

Blackwell also worked to counter the idea that Floyd died of an opioid overdose. He said they are tranquilizers, which cause a person to slump over, fall asleep and not wake up. “They’re not screaming for their lives,” he said. “They’re not calling on their mothers.”

Nelson said Floyd’s health problems and the drugs in his system are what killed him, and that Chauvin followed his training in restraining Floyd that day.

“The evidence will show that Mr. Floyd died of a cardiac arrhythmia that occurred as a result of hypertension, coronary disease, the ingestion of methamphetamine and fentanyl and the adrenaline flowing through his body,” Nelson said. “All of which acted to further compromise an already compromised heart.”

Nelson said jurors will hear from witnesses who were with Floyd before the police arrived who’ll say they observed him take two pills and fall asleep while in the car outside of Cup Foods.

He said the state is including additional medical experts because they weren’t satisfied with the findings from Hennepin County Medical Examiner Andrew Baker, that Baker did not find evidence of asphyxia, which would have been the result of Chauvin’s use of force.