How prosecutors in the Chauvin trial presented an 'almost perfect case'

Crystal Hill
·Reporter
·7-min read

On the final day of arguments in the murder trial of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd, prosecutors told the jury that after hearing from 45 witnesses over the span of three weeks, they needed to consider one more “witness”: common sense.

“It really isn’t that complicated,” prosecuting attorney Jerry Blackwell said, alluding to the video of Chauvin kneeling, for nine minutes and 29 seconds, on Floyd’s neck. “It’s so simple that a child could understand it. In fact, a child — the 9-year-old girl who was among the bystanders at the scene on May 25, 2020, and testified at the trial — did understand it.”

“You can believe your eyes,” Blackwell said. “It was what you thought it was. It was what you saw.”

Blackwell’s closing remarks encapsulated much of what legal experts say made the prosecution’s case a resounding success — compelling witnesses, a seamless presentation and just enough emphasis on the video to drive home the simple point that Chauvin was guilty of exactly what the footage showed him doing. The jury deliberated for about 11 hours before convicting Chauvin of all three counts against him, including second- and third-degree murder.

Prosecution attorney Steve Schleicher, Derek Chauvin and defense attorney Eric Nelson during the Derek Chauvin trial in Minneapolis, MN on April 19, 2021. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Court TV via Reuters Video)
From left: Prosecuting attorney Steve Schleicher, Derek Chauvin and defense attorney Eric Nelson during Chauvin's trial. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Court TV via Reuters Video)

Law professors told Yahoo News the prosecution’s performance during the trial will serve as a master class on how to approach a case of this magnitude.

“They tried an almost perfect case,” Joseph Daly, a retired law professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., told Yahoo News, adding that the trial team’s use of visuals and witness testimony was a deft “blend of modern technology in the courtroom.”

Daly said the state’s expert witnesses — specifically Dr. Martin Tobin, a pulmonologist who described the impact Chauvin’s restraint had on Floyd’s breathing — conveyed complex information in a fashion the jury could easily digest.

“Dr. Tobin was in my mind probably the best medical witness I have ever seen in a courtroom,” Daly said. “He had a bedside manner. He inspired trust in, I’m positive, the jurors, but anyone who heard him. And the prosecution used him to perfection.”

In this image from video, Dr. Martin Tobin testifies as Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill presides before the court Thursday, April 15, 2021, in the trial of former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis, Minn.  Chauvin is charged in the May 25, 2020 death of George Floyd.   (Court TV via AP, Pool)
Dr. Martin Tobin testifies at the trial on April 15. (Court TV via AP, Pool)

Though the state appeared to have an advantage at the outset of the case due to how reprehensible many people already found Chauvin’s actions, the trial could have had a different outcome had the prosecutors been less skilled, said Justin Hansford, a law professor at Howard University and the director of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center. The state’s 13-person team was led by Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who was appointed by Gov. Tim Walz, and included former prosecutors with decades of experience.

Hansford believes the decision to build such a powerhouse team stemmed from pressure to secure a conviction against Chauvin and to avoid the potential for a national uproar that would have likely followed an acquittal.

“We never had protests [that] big in American history before,” Hansford told Yahoo News, referring to the events of last summer. “And I think there was a fear — that went all the way up to the White House — of what would happen if [Chauvin was acquitted]. In that context, there was a lot of investment in the prosecution's case. They had over 40 witnesses, way outmuscling the defense [which had seven]. There was no expense spared.”

Lawyer Jerry W. Blackwell makes opening statements as defense attorney Eric Nelson sits beside former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin during his trial for second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S., March 29, 2021 in this courtroom sketch from a video feed of the proceedings. REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg
A courtroom sketch of prosecutor Jerry Blackwell making opening statements on March 29. At right, defense attorney Nelson and Chauvin. (Jane Rosenberg/Reuters)

Then there was the jury. Both the prosecution and the defense teams settled on a panel that appeared to have jurors of varying races, genders and ages, reflecting the demographics of Minneapolis itself. That diversity may have made a difference in how the jury perceived the bystanders and how much leeway they were willing to give Chauvin, said James E. Coleman Jr., a law professor at Duke University.

The jury “had people who would have been empathetic to George Floyd,” Coleman told Yahoo News. “People who probably would have been demanding that the defense actually address the facts. [Whereas] in a suburban jurisdiction, you might have had an all-white jury that was inclined to rule in favor of a police officer on the grounds that almost anything a police officer does, given the nature of his job, is reasonable.”

For Neill Franklin, a 34-year police veteran in Baltimore and the former director of Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a public safety nonprofit, the video of Chauvin pinning his knee to Floyd’s neck was instrumental in demonstrating why the officer’s actions were criminal.

“We had so much video evidence, [and] not just from one perspective,” he told Yahoo News. “Close to nine minutes of video from one of the witnesses on the sidewalk, the [surveillance] camera across the street [and] bodycam footage from a couple of different police officers.”

But having an abundance of video footage was not enough, Coleman said. The state needed to be strategic in how it was presented to the jury.

“The one concern with video is that you overshow it,” Coleman said. “And if you overshow the video, it can have the effect of numbing the jurors to what they’re watching. I think that's what happened in the Rodney King case, for example. The first time they were tried in the white suburb of Los Angeles, they played the videotape of these cops beating Rodney King over and over, frame by frame. And then all of a sudden, rather than the emotional impact of watching it at full speed, you were looking at each frame. And they were trying to offer an explanation for what was happening with each frame.”

Derek Chauvin listens to the verdict; and, George Floyd. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Court TV via Reuters Video, via Facebook)
Derek Chauvin listens to the verdict; George Floyd. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Court TV via Reuters Video, via Facebook)

Coleman said Chauvin’s defense team, led by attorney Eric Nelson, attempted a similar strategy in an attempt to argue that one should not judge an entire incident on snippets of video.

The defense seemed to falter in the same areas where the state thrived, but some experts told Yahoo News that there was simply too much for Nelson to overcome.

“He was defending probably the most hated man in the United States during this last year,” Daly, who once taught Nelson in law school, told Yahoo News, “because this video has been seen by so many people in the world and his client looked so coldhearted. And so [Chauvin] had inspired almost hatred in people when they watched this.”

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin tells the judge that he waived his right to testify to the jury on the fourteenth day of Chauvin's trial for second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. April 15, 2021 in this courtroom sketch. REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg
A courtroom sketch of Chauvin on April 15, telling the judge he was waiving his right to testify. (Jane Rosenberg/Reuters)

Not every legal expert thought the state’s case was a slam dunk, however. David Schultz, a visiting professor at the University of Minnesota Law School and a professor at Hamline University, found both sides’ closing arguments underwhelming.

A good closing statement forms a narrative, Schultz said. “It's [taking] all the facts that the jury has heard and weaving it together into kind of a short 30- to 60-minute story that paints a picture. I don't think either the prosecution or defense really told a strong story.”

While it remains to be seen how much impact the case has beyond Chauvin’s conviction, the resonance of Floyd’s death and the severity of the charges made for an extraordinary trial.

“It’s hard to tell,” Hansford said on what the ultimate legacy of the case will be, “because it's so easy for a lawyer to say, ‘This is different from Chauvin’s case.’ Every lawyer will now say, ‘This is different.’”

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