Hennepin County District Judge Peter A. Cahill had previously blocked Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, from mentioning the May 6, 2019, incident at trial but is reconsidering the issue along with several pretrial defense motions, including one that would limit the prosecution testimony of a forensic psychiatrist who is expected to talk about Floyd’s reaction to officers at the 2020 scene.
Before jury selection resumed Thursday, Cahill heard arguments from both sides over the expected testimony of Sarah Vinson, a physician who specializes in psychiatry, who is being called by prosecutors to talk about how humans respond to stress and traumatic scenes and what symptoms of anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder look like.
The defense has sought to limit Vinson’s testimony, arguing her analysis of Floyd is “speculative” and not based on scientific fact, while prosecutors say she is being called to rebut defense claims about Floyd’s behavior at the scene, including that he was resisting arrest.
Jerry Blackwell, a special prosecutor in the case, told Cahill they want Vinson “to talk about the way that a human being would respond to a traumatic event.”
“Floyd had only recently had a gun put in his face and the risk of having, frankly, his head blown off over the investigation of a fake $20 bill by the police,” Blackwell said. “That is a situation that would cause trauma to any human being. And so how he responds to that, the feeling that he was going to die if he were put into the squad car, which he said repeatedly, how would a general human being respond to that from an anxiety point of view?”
Both issues, which Cahill is expected to rule on Friday, highlight key points of arguments in the case. Prosecutors contend that Chauvin’s treatment of Floyd, including pinning his knee into the man’s neck for more than nine minutes while he was handcuffed and held face down on a South Minneapolis street, went beyond the necessary use of force and was a “substantial causal factor” in his death.
Chauvin’s defense, meanwhile, has argued that Floyd’s health issues and a high level of drugs in his system at the time of his arrest killed him, not the pressure from Chauvin’s knee, and that Floyd’s own actions led to his death.
Chauvin faces charges of second- and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in Floyd’s death. Three other officers charged in the case — J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas K. Lane and Tou Thao — are set to be tried separately in August.
Nelson also has pressed Cahill to reconsider allowing the 2019 incident between Floyd and Minneapolis police to be presented to the jury — arguing Floyd’s history of drug use and behavior during encounters with police make it relevant to his client’s case.
The previous encounter occurred after Minneapolis police stopped a car in which Floyd was riding. Body camera footage released in the case last fall shows Floyd did not immediately comply with police requests to put his hands on the dash and appeared to be swallowing pills instead. The police responded aggressively. One officer pulled a gun and another brandished a Taser while trying to get Floyd out of the car, as the man began crying and begging officers not to shoot him.
Unlike the 2020 incident — which ultimately ended with Floyd restrained on the ground — the 2019 arrest de-escalated quickly. Within moments, Floyd complied. He was calmly handcuffed and then seated in a police car without any violence. Later, while in police custody, Floyd acknowledged that he was addicted to painkillers and had swallowed as many as eight Percocet pills — a powerful prescription narcotic. Police called for help getting him to a hospital and emergency workers were seriously concerned about his elevated blood pressure, according to transcripts filed into evidence last fall.
Nelson this week called the two separate incidents “remarkably similar” and argued the 2019 arrest is more relevant because of newly discovered evidence in Chauvin’s case.
In December, investigators with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension conducted a second search of the car Floyd was sitting in when officers approached him in May and recovered pills that were tested and found to include fentanyl. Fragments of chewed-up pills containing methamphetamine and Floyd’s DNA were found in a January search of the squad car into which Chauvin and the other three officers at the scene had attempted to put Floyd.
Nelson has argued the 2019 incident should be admitted on medical grounds as proof of how Floyd’s body responded to drugs that he admitted he had taken. He called attention to how responding emergency workers told Floyd they were so concerned about his high blood pressure that they worried he might have a heart attack.
Last summer, Hennepin County Chief Medical Examiner Andrew Baker formally declared Floyd’s death a homicide, listing “cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression” as the cause of death. Baker later told the FBI that Floyd’s heart and lungs stopped “due to the combined effects of his health problems as well as the exertion and restraint involved in Floyd’s interaction with police before being on the ground.”
Cahill seemed open to admitting the 2019 incident on Nelson’s medical arguments. But prosecutors strongly opposed, arguing the “real motivations” of the defense were to sully Floyd’s character and blame him for his own death.
“The desperations of the defense to just sort of smear Mr. Floyd’s character by showing that he struggled with an opioid addiction, like so many Americans do, is really just evidence of bad character,” said Matthew Frank, an assistant Minnesota attorney general who is leading the prosecution case. “Because he acted that way once before, it proves he acted this way in May 2020 during a much different confrontation by Minneapolis police officers than in May 2019.”
Frank urged Cahill to consider, “What is the defense really offering this evidence for?”
Cahill is considering these issues at the same time he weighs requests from Chauvin’s attorney to delay the case and reconsider a change-of-venue motion because of publicity related to a $27 million civil settlement announced last week between the city of Minneapolis and Floyd’s family. The judge said he would announce rulings on these motions as well as the admissibility of Vinson’s testimony and Floyd’s prior 2019 arrest on Friday.
On Wednesday, Cahill dismissed two seated jurors in the case who said they could no longer be impartial because they had seen news about the settlement. But the court picked two other jurors to replace them. A total of nine jurors have been seated in the case — as the court seeks a panel of 12 and up to four alternates.