Battle over Floyd's 2019 arrest highlights key trial issue

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A group of protesters march in the snow around the Hennepin County Government Center, Monday, March 15, 2021, in Minneapolis where the second week of jury selection continues in the trial for former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Chauvin is charged with murder in the death of George Floyd during an arrest last may in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

MINNEAPOLIS – A lawyer for the former Minneapolis police officer who pressed his knee against George Floyd’s neck wants to bring up Floyd’s history of drug use and a previous arrest in an effort to show jurors that Floyd was partly to blame for his own death.

A prosecutor says it’s irrelevant and that Derek Chauvin’s lawyer is trying to smear Floyd to excuse his client’s actions. Chauvin is charged with murder and manslaughter.

Now it’s up to Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill to decide the critical question of how much the high-profile trial will revolve around Floyd’s own actions on May 25, when the Black man was declared dead after Chauvin, who is white, pressed his knee against his neck for about nine minutes. Floyd’s death, captured on a widely seen bystander video, set off weeks of sometimes-violent protests across the country and led to a national reckoning on racial justice.

The judge previously rejected Chauvin’s attempt to tell the jury about Floyd’s May 2019 arrest — a year before his fatal encounter with Chauvin — but heard fresh arguments Tuesday from both sides. He said he would rule on the request Thursday.

Defense attorney Eric Nelson argued that new evidence makes the earlier arrest admissible: Drugs were found last December during a second search of the car Floyd was in, and were found in a January search of the squad car into which the four officers attempted to put Floyd.

He also argued the similarities between the encounters are relevant: Both times, as officers drew their guns and struggled to get Floyd out of the car, he called out for his mother, claimed he had been shot before and cried, and put what appeared to be pills in his mouth. Both searches turned up drugs in the cars. Officers noticed a white residue outside his mouth both times, although that has not been explained.

In the first arrest, several opioid pills and cocaine were found. An autopsy showed Floyd had fentanyl and methamphetamine in his system when he died.

“The similarities are incredible. The exact same behavior in two incidents, almost one year apart,” Nelson said.