Chauvin trial: Witnesses can’t call George Floyd ‘gentle giant’ in court, judge rules

Jury selection is ongoing, and now lawyers for both sides are starting to shape the flow of the trial

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Wednesday 10 March 2021 21:08
<p>George Floyd Square is shown on Feb. 8, 2021, in Minneapolis. </p>

George Floyd Square is shown on Feb. 8, 2021, in Minneapolis.

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During the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged with murdering George Floyd, the court won’t be able to hear testimony describing Mr Floyd as a “gentle giant”, which became a common refrain after his death.

Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill made the decision on Tuesday, Minnesota Public Radio reported, as state prosecutors and Mr Chauvin’s lawyers wrangled over who could say what in the upcoming proceedings. 

“As soon as you start getting into propensity for violence or propensity for peacefulness, I think then you’re getting into character evidence,” Mr Cahill said.

Testimony also won’t be able to describe Mr Floyd as a peaceful person, although his family will be able to speak on the stand about their relationship with him.

Firefighters who responded to the scene of the incident last May, where video captured Mr Chauvin kneeling on Mr Floyd’s neck for minutes as he pleaded that he couldn’t breathe, will also be barred from offering their medical opinion on what caused Mr Floyd’s death.

Jury selection in the trial is expected to last for the next few weeks, and what they will hear at the trial will be just as impactful as who is in the jury box listening. As a result, both sides of the case have tried to define the contours of the argument.

State prosecutors argued in a court filing on Wednesday that Mr Chauvin’s lawyers had proposed jury instructions that would be too confusing and unduly favour Mr Chauvin’s judgements during the chaotic moments of his interaction with Mr Floyd.

They took particular issue with two phrases in the proposed instructions: that the jury shouldn’t consider Mr Chauvin’s actions with “20/20 hindsight”, and that they should remember that officers are often forced to make “split-second judgements”.

“The phrase ‘20/20 hindsight’ often explains away or justifies a person’s failure to act properly at an earlier time”, state prosecutors wrote in their brief. “Thus, that phrase could discourage jurors from weighing the evidence for themselves, and may subtly (or not so subtly) suggest that jurors should not hold police officers accountable for misconduct after the misconduct occurs.”

They also argued that focusing on “split-second judgements” could obscure the reality of whether the scene that day in May last year actually did require instantaneous decision-making.

“Just consider the facts of this case: Defendant pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck and upper back for more than 560 seconds, and during a significant portion of that time Floyd lay unresponsive and without a pulse,” their argument continued.

People’s opinions of the police and how their decisions should be evaluated has been a major part of early jury selection proceedings so far.

One potential juror, who was later eliminated, spoke about his support for the Blue Lives Matter police movement and understanding of the difficulty of police work.

“They have to make split-second decisions a in a lot of instances, and I trust their judgement in a vast majority of those situations,” he said. “I would strongly disagree that people second-guess police officers, but that’s not to say mistakes aren’t made,” he added.

Another juror, who was also eliminated, had nearly the opposite position, and felt that officers in the Floyd incident “took the law into their own hands.”

“He didn’t make his court date,” the juror said. “His fate was decided on the street that day.”

This question, whether an officer’s actions at the time of a death were reasonable, is usually the central issue of policing trials, and courts usually side with police when it comes to assessing whether the officer had a reasonable fear for their or others’ safety.

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