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Opening Arguments Have Begun For The Derek Chauvin Trial

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In Minneapolis, a murder trial is underway against Derek Chauvin. He is the white ex-police officer who killed George Floyd, a Black man. Floyd's death last May sparked months of protests that spread around the world. The prosecution and defense both gave opening statements today to a jury. NPR's Leila Fadel has been covering this trial since the start of jury selection, and she joins us now.

Hey, Leila.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: Hey. So let's start with the opening statements this morning. The first was from the prosecution. How did they lay out their case?

FADEL: So Jerry Blackwell gave the prosecution's opening statement. He made an about hour-long address to the jury, and he kept going back to the numbers 9-2-9, nine minutes and 29 seconds, that Blackwell said Derek Chauvin's knee was pinning George Floyd's neck to the ground. He said repeatedly that Chauvin wouldn't let up or get up. He told the jury that the state would build a case that showed that Chauvin used excessive use of force against an unarmed man that was complaining, that he was grinding and crushing Floyd's neck. And while he did it, Blackwell said, he appeared unbothered - that his sunglasses stayed in place the whole time. He told the jury that witnesses and evidence would show that this was unusual, that the police chief and other officers would tell them it was not consistent with training or policy or reflective of the Minneapolis Police Department. Here's a moment from that opening statement.

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JERRY BLACKWELL: On May 25 of 2020, Mr. Derek Chauvin betrayed this badge when he used excessive and unreasonable force upon the body of Mr. George Floyd.

FADEL: Blackwell played a part of a bystander video for the jury. One juror gripped her armrest as she watched. It was of Floyd calling for his mother, saying he couldn't breathe as bystanders begged the police to stop. Blackwell already told the jurors that Floyd said he couldn't breathe 27 times during that time, that he was unconscious, breathless or pulseless for more than four minutes of the time Chauvin was on Floyd's neck. Again, this is Blackwell.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BLACKWELL: You can believe your eyes that it's a homicide. It's murder.

FADEL: Blackwell had already told the jury that - also told the jury that, yes, Floyd struggled with an opioid addiction. He had a partially blocked artery in his heart. But he said evidence would prove beyond a reasonable doubt that an overdose didn't kill Floyd, that a heart episode did not kill Floyd, but that Chauvin did.

CHANG: OK. That's the prosecution's opening statement. What did Chauvin's defense lawyers say in their opening statement?

FADEL: So Eric Nelson, Chauvin's attorney, gave a statement that was shorter, about 30 minutes and a preview of Chauvin's defense. As expected, Nelson focused on Floyd. He said what transpired before those 9 minutes and 29 seconds was a difficult struggle, that Floyd had a mix of fentanyl and methamphetamine in his system. He pointed to Floyd's size, 6'3" and 223 pounds, versus the size of the officers - remember, there were four, though - his client about 5'9" and 145 pounds. He said the growing chorus of bystanders that were concerned for Floyd, who was unarmed, not resisting and cuffed on the ground - the officers perceived the growing crowd as a threat.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERIC NELSON: They're screaming at them, causing the officers to divert their attention from the care of Mr. Floyd to the threat that was growing in front of them.

FADEL: Nelson said his client used a necessary maximum restraint move called a hogtie. He asked jurors to use common sense and reason when looking at the evidence, and he gave a different reason for Floyd's death, cardiac arrhythmia. Nelson told the jury that the only just verdict in this case would be a "not guilty" verdict.

CHANG: OK. And obviously, Leila, what the courtroom is focused on right now are the criminal charges against Chauvin. But a lot of people watching this trial are seeing it in much broader terms. Can you talk a little bit about that?

FADEL: Yeah. I mean, we heard Blackwell, the prosecutor, say this case is not about policing or all police. We heard Nelson say there's no political or social cause in this courtroom. But outside the courtroom, many view this case as a referendum on police accountability and the criminal justice system after so many cases where police weren't held accountable in the killing of a Black person. We heard civil rights leader Al Sharpton say that at a vigil last night with the Floyd family.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AL SHARPTON: The criminal justice system is on trial tomorrow. Chauvin is in the courtroom, but America's on trial.

FADEL: The case is expected to last about a month.

CHANG: And that is NPR's Leila Fadel.

Thank you, Leila.

FADEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.