Emotional eyewitness accounts, lots of video: Here’s what we learned in the first week of testimony at Derek Chauvin trial

MINNEAPOLIS — That’s a wrap on the first week of witness testimony in the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, charged in the death of George Floyd last Memorial Day.

Over five days, 14 jurors sat through opening statements, 19 witness testimonies and an onslaught of videos played for the courtroom.

The week started with heart-wrenching eyewitness accounts of Floyd’s death, with several witnesses breaking down as they recounted their attempts to intervene. But in the second half of the week, testimony shifted to focus on police body-camera videos, with insight from paramedics and police officers about what happened that evening, and what department policy directs them to do.

Jurors haven’t heard from medical experts yet. Their testimony will be key for prosecutors because the defense argues Floyd diedfrom a combination of medical issues, drug use and his struggle with police. Prosecutors say he died from excessive use of force — specifically, Chauvin’s knee on his neck for more than nine minutes.

Here are the highlights:

Videos, videos, videos

Jurors saw the video – the viral one Minneapolis teen Darnella Frazier recorded of Floyd’s struggle with police – almost before they got their seats warm. Prosecutors played the full video – nine-minutes-plus – during their opening arguments.

Based on their answers during jury-selection questioning, it was the first time most members of the panel saw the whole thing. But they would see and hear videos and audio of the struggle many more times before the end of the week..

There were replays from four police bodycams. From a camera installed by the City of Minneapolis above a gas station across the street from the incident. From cellphone videos filmed by other bystanders. And from security cameras inside the Cup Foods store where Floyd used a suspected counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes.

More video evidence may come as the trial continues. Cynthia Cohen, a jury consultant at Verdict Success in Los Angeles, said the screenings have given the panel a you-are-there feel. “Jurors become numb from repetitive viewings if it is a one-view camera,”  said Cohen. “However, different camera angles make the experience more profound. They see something new or something more in-depth in each subsequent video.”

This image from a police body camera shows people gathering as former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was recorded pressing his knee on George Floyd's neck for several minutes as onlookers yelled at Chauvin to get off and Floyd saying that he couldn't breathe on May 25, 2020 in Minneapolis. (Photo: AP)

Derek Chauvin’s trial is traumatic – for witnesses and viewers

Almost everyone who testified about watching Floyd take his last breath beneath Chauvin’s knee became choked up on the witness stand this week. On Wednesday, the judge had to call a 10-minute recess when Charles McMillian, 61, began to sob as he watched video showing Floyd struggling with police and calling out for his mother.

Genevieve Hansen, 27, an off-duty firefighter who stumbled across the scene that day, cried recalling her pleas to the officers to allow her to administer aid to Floyd. “I was desperate to help,” Hansen said Tuesday as she teared up, touched a tissue to her eyes and took a drink of water.

Simply watching video of Floyd’s death can take an emotional toll on viewers, especially people of color who have been repeatedly exposed to microaggressions and viral incidents of racism and police brutality, said Nadine Kaslow, director of the Atlanta Trauma Alliance. But witnessing a severely traumatic event – such as Floyd’s death – in person can have “profound” psychological effects, both short and long term. 

Frazier, 18, the teen who recorded the bystander video that went viral, told prosecutors the incident has changed her life. Crying, she said she has stayed up some nights “apologizing and apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life.” Other witnesses shared similar feelings of guilt for not stepping in, even though an officer kept bystanders at bay.

Many in Minneapolis are worried Chauvin’s trial will be retraumatizing, particularly for Black teenagers who are at risk of suffering serious mental health consequences. More on that here. (And it’s been hard for journalists, too.)

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