MINNEAPOLIS — About a year before George Floyd was killed in a deadly arrest by Minneapolis police officers last May, he had a different encounter with police in which he also became distressed as an officer pointed a gun at him and ordered him out of a car.
On Tuesday, March 16, a lawyer for Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer on trial for murder charges for Floyd's death, asked the judge to allow the jury, which is still being selected, to see evidence of the earlier episode.
In the May 6, 2019, arrest, a panicked Floyd swallowed several opioid pain-killer pills as police approached and was later treated at a hospital. Eric Nelson, Chauvin's lead lawyer, has argued that the main cause of Floyd's death a year later, which was ruled a homicide, was the opioid fentanyl found in his blood at autopsy.
"The similarities are incredible, it's the exact same behavior in two incidents almost exactly one year apart," Nelson told the court, noting Floyd called out for his "mama" in both arrests, according to video footage.
Prosecutors opposed the move, saying the defense was seeking to dirty the character of Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who died in handcuffs after the May 25, 2020, arrest. Video of his death in which Chauvin, who is white, pushes Floyd's head into the road with a knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes ignited global protests against police brutality and racism.
Matthew Frank, a prosecutor in the Minnesota attorney general's office, said the request showed "the desperation of the defense to smear Mr. Floyd's character by showing that when he is struggling with an opioid addiction, like so many Americans do, it's really just evidence of bad character."
In body-worn camera footage from the 2020 arrest, foam can be seen around Floyd's mouth as police order him out of his car on suspicion he used a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes.
Nelson wants to show the jury evidence supporting his argument that the foam resulted from Floyd swallowing drugs. Pills containing fentanyl and methamphetamine were found in Floyd's car; semi-chewed versions of such pills were found in the back of the police car where officers had struggled to get Floyd to sit, Nelson said.
Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill, overseeing the trial in a heavily guarded tower in downtown Minneapolis, said he planned to rule on Nelson's request on Thursday, March 18.
Cahill said he might allow evidence about a paramedic's findings in the 2019 arrest, saying it could be admissible evidence of Floyd's "bodily response" to ingesting a large amount of drugs.
But he said he would quickly quash anyone suggesting to the jury: "Don't feel sympathy for him because he was taking drugs."
Prosecutors argued the prior arrest and Floyd's blood pressure on a date more than a year earlier were not relevant to the charges against Chauvin. They said the police response then, involving different officers than in 2020, was not comparable, not least in that Floyd survived.
In 2019, officers spoke calmly with Floyd and sat him in the squad car before he was taken to the hospital.
"Mr. Floyd had a history of hypertension, there's no doubt about that," Frank, the prosecutor, told the court. But it was wrong to argue that "he was on notice and so therefore he somehow gave up the right to be treated reasonably by police officers."
The other three officers are due to go on trial later this year on charges of aiding and abetting Chauvin. The Minneapolis Police Department fired all four officers the day after the deadly arrest.
Chauvin, 44, is charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. He has pleaded not guilty, saying he followed his police training, and has appeared in court each day in a suit and tie taking notes on a yellow legal pad.
The court has seated nine jurors since the trial began last week, and plans to have opening arguments commence on March 29.
However, the defense has asked the judge to reconsider a request to move the trial to a different county after the city of Minneapolis announced last week it would pay $27 million to Floyd's family to settle their federal wrongful-death lawsuit. Cahill said he is considering the request amid concerns publicity around the announcement may influence jurors.
Cahill said the jurors who were seated before the March 12 announcement will be recalled on Wednesday morning, March 17, so he can question them on whether the settlement creates bias.
"The $27 million settlement is unfortunate," Cahill said on Tuesday. "But let's face it, it's not just a legal decision, it's a political decision, and I think people realize that."
Chauvin faces up to 40 years in prison if convicted on the most serious charge.