MINNEAPOLIS (REUTERS) - Former Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin betrayed his badge in the deadly arrest of George Floyd last May, a prosecutor told jurors in his opening statement at Chauvin's murder trial in a heavily fortified courthouse on Monday (March 29).
Chauvin's lawyers, who must contend with multiple videos of the arrest that jurors have been warned they may find distressing, say the 19-year police veteran followed his training.
"The use of force is not attractive but it is a necessary component of policing," Eric Nelson, Chauvin's lead lawyer, said in his opening statement as he sought to add what he said was overlooked context to the video footage, which sparked worldwide protests against police brutality against Black people.
But prosecutors told jurors they would hear testimony in weeks ahead from the Minneapolis police chief himself that Chauvin's use of force was excessive as they seek a rare conviction of a US police officer for killing a civilian.
Jerry Blackwell, a prosecutor with the Minnesota Attorney General's Office, told the racially diverse jurors that officers who wear the Minneapolis police badge pledge never to use "unnecessary force or violence".
"You will learn that on May 25, Mr Derek Chauvin betrayed this badge when he used excessive and unreasonable force upon the body of George Floyd," said Blackwell, who addressed the jury for just shy of an hour.
He displayed a still image from a bystander's cellphone video of Chauvin, who is white, with his knee on the neck of Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man in handcuffs, saying it showed Chauvin "grinding and crushing him until the very breath - no, ladies and gentlemen - the very life was squeezed out of him.
Although the trial is widely seen as a litmus test for US race relations, neither side discussed the race of the defendant or the victim in the statements to the jury.
But the topic was inescapable in the preceding two weeks of jury selection, where potential jurors were quizzed by the two sides on their views on the Black Lives Matter protest movement and whether they saw systemic racism in the criminal justice system.
Many prospective jurors said they recognised the scrutiny their deliberations would come under, not least by those who view the trial as a reckoning for how Black people are policed in the United States.
"It's been a long time coming," a gospel choir sang from Sam Cooke's 1960s civil rights anthem during a prayer service on Sunday evening attended by Floyd's relatives at a church a few blocks east of the deadly arrest. "But I know a change is gonna come."
Philonise Floyd, a brother of George Floyd, said before the service that he had faith that Chauvin would be convicted.
"The video is the proof," he said.
'Not an easy struggle'
Prosecutors played the most widely seen bystander video to jurors on Monday in the courtroom, located near the top floor of a tower in downtown Minneapolis ringed with high barriers, barbed wire and soldiers from the state's National Guard. Small groups of protesters decrying police brutality blocked traffic at times in the surrounding streets.
Chauvin, dressed in a gray suit, a blue face mask and a blue shirt and tie, took pages of notes on a yellow legal pad as the dying moans of Floyd and the yelling of horrified onlookers filled the courtroom. One could be heard repeatedly shouting at Chauvin that he was a "bum" and demanding police check Floyd's pulse as Floyd lay motionless.
Chauvin, 45, has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, with his lawyers arguing that the main cause of Floyd's death, which the county examiner ruled a homicide caused by police restraints, was a drug overdose.
The former officer faces up to 40 years in prison if convicted on the most serious charge. The Minneapolis Police Department fired Chauvin and the three other officers involved the day after the arrest.
Defence lawyer Nelson used his 25-minute opening statement to describe Floyd's drug use, his underlying health problems and a chaotic scene during the arrest.
"This was not an easy struggle," he said, adding that the screaming of bystanders ended up "causing the officers to divert their attention from the care of Mr Floyd."
"Derek Chauvin did exactly what he was trained to do over the course of his 19-year career," Nelson told the jury.
Prosecutors warned the jury to ignore defence arguments that Floyd's death was caused by an opioid overdose. Blackwell drooped his head and shut his eyes, feigning a stupor, telling the jury that someone overdosing on fentanyl would be unconscious, and not "screaming for their mother." "That's not what an opioid overdose looks like," he said.
The first witness called by the prosecutors was Jena Scurry, a Minneapolis 911 emergency dispatcher who sent police to the Cup Foods store and watched live surveillance video footage showing a police car rock back and forth outside the store as four officers struggled to get Floyd to stay in the back seat.
She said she watched the video, which was played to jurors, with growing alarm.
"I first asked if the screen had frozen," she said. Each time she looked up, she testified, the officers were still on top of Floyd.
"My instinct is telling me something is wrong," said Scurry, who called a supervising police sergeant. Jurors heard her say she did not mean to be a "snitch" but she wondered if the officers needed more help.