Cause of death debated in George Floyd trial

Lawyers defending the former Minneapolis police officer filmed kneeling on George Floyd’s neck as he begged for his life have argued Derek Chauvin was justified in using maximum restraint because the unarmed black man had been using drugs.

Eric J. Nelson, the lawyer for ex-officer Derek Chauvin, said Mr Floyd’s drug use is what led to a “struggle” between him and the Minneapolis Police Department officers.

He told a jury that two friends who had been sitting in a car with Mr Floyd before police were called will testify that he took methamphetamine and fentanyl.

“Mr Floyd’s friends will explain that he fell asleep in the car and they couldn’t wake him up,” Mr Nelson said.

He said two employees at the store that called the police on Mr Floyd for using a fake $20 bill to buy a pack of cigarettes suspected the 46-year-old had been under the influence of “something”.

Mr Nelson said one clerk described him as unable to “control himself”.

George Floyd’s death sparked the Black Lives Matters movement in the USA.

He used his opening statement to also describe a chaotic scene during the arrest, saying the screaming of bystanders ended up “causing the officers to divert their attention from the care of Mr Floyd”.

“You will learn that Derek Chauvin did exactly what he was trained to do over the course of his 19-year career,” Mr Nelson said.

“Use of force is not attractive, but it is a necessary component of policing.”

But prosecutors said talk of Mr Floyd’s drug use was irrelevant.

Jerry Blackwell, a prosecutor with the Minnesota attorney general’s office, referenced an autopsy report which declared the cause of death a “homicide”.

“You’re going to hear obviously that he struggled with drug addiction, that he had a high blood pressure [and] they’ll talk about heart disease,” Mr Blackwell said in his opening statement.

“What you’ll learn is that George Floyd lives for years, day in and day out, with all these conditions until this one day.”

He told jurors that officers who wear the Minneapolis police badge pledge to never use “unnecessary force or violence”.

Mr Nelson, left, speaks at the first day of Chauvin’s trial. Photo: AAP

“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 Mr Blackwell.

He displayed a still image from a bystander’s mobile phone video of Chauvin, who is white, with his knee on the neck of Floyd, a 46-year-old black man in handcuffs.

The prosecution said the picture showed Chauvin “grinding and crushing” Mr Floyd “until the very breath … the very life was squeezed out of him”.

Mr Floyd’s death ignited a global protest movement over police brutality against black people.

His brother, Philonise Floyd, said before the service began that he had faith that Chauvin would be convicted.

“The video is the proof,” he said.

Prosecutors played the most widely seen bystander video to jurors as the trial began on Tuesday morning (Australian time).

Chauvin, dressed in a grey 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.

Chauvin, 45, has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

He 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 2020 arrest.

-with AAP

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