To the prosecution, the witnesses who watched George Floyd ’s body go still were regular people — a firefighter, a mixed martial arts fighter, a high school student and her 9-year-old cousin in a T-shirt emblazoned with the word “Love” — going about their daily lives when they happened upon the ghastly scene of an officer kneeling on a man’s neck.
“Normal folks, the bystanders,” prosecutor Jerry Blackwell called them in his opening statement. “You’re going to see these bystanders, a veritable bouquet of humanity.”
In his closing argument on Monday, prosecutor Steve Schleicher described how Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged with murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death, stayed on top of Floyd and “continued to push him down, to grind his knees, to twist his hand, to twist his fingers into the handcuffs that bound him looking at him, staring, staring down at times the horrified bystanders who had gathered and watched this unfold.”
But some of the same people were portrayed as unruly, angry, even threatening by Eric Nelson, Chauvin's attorney. Nelson told the jury about the hostility the officers faced, how they were distracted and perhaps frightened by people at the scene. He described the bystanders as a “crowd” that created “a hostile environment.”
Nelson said Monday that they played an important role, even “startling” Chauvin, during what he described as a “critical moment” in Floyd's death. As he played video of Floyd's last breath, he pointed out that Chauvin pulls out his mace and begins to shake it as an off-duty Minneapolis firefighter approaches Floyd.
“As the crowd grew in size, seemingly so too did their anger,” Nelson said in his opening statement on March 29. “And remember, there’s more to the scene than just what the officers see in front of them. There are people behind them, there are people across the street, there are cars stopping, people yelling. There is a growing crowd and what officers perceive to be a threat.”
But Blackwell countered that notion in the state's rebuttal argument Monday: "What was there to be afraid of here, particularly at this scene? There were three high school juniors there and a second-grader who was going to the store to get candy."
The carefully calibrated language by each side was no accident. As Nelson cross-examined Donald Williams, a former wrestler and a mixed martial arts fighter who also worked security, he peppered his questions with the word “crowd": “Have you ever had to deal with a crowd of people?” “Have you ever had to deal with a crowd of people that was upset?" and “Is it easier or harder to deal with a crowd that is upset?”