MINNEAPOLIS (AP) – Derek Chauvin’s defense attorney was questioning George Floyd’s girlfriend about the drug-buying couple when he abruptly switched gears on a seemingly innocuous question: he suspected the couple had nicknames for each other. What name, he asked, did it appear on Floyd’s phone?
Courteney Ross smiled first at the question and then paused before answering, “Mom.”
The fleeting exchange challenged the widespread report that Floyd screamed for his late mother while he was pinned on the sidewalk. And it appeared to be one of a series of moves aimed at undermining a dominant narrative of Floyd’s death – substantiated by video and satiety messages and commentary from viewers – of a ruthless, arrogant cop who ignores a man’s screams I can’t breathe his life is extinguished.
At another point in the process, Nelson asked a paramedic if he had responded to “other” overdose calls before quickly correcting himself to say “overdose calls” – perhaps a simple mistake or an attempt to plant the idea that Floyd’s death was an overdose.
Prosecution experts alleged that drugs did not kill Floyd.
Nelson repeatedly referred to bystanders at Floyd’s arrest as “crowd” and “unruly” and suggested that there were more people in attendance than were seen on camera. He drilled a fire department captain after taking 17 minutes to reach the scene when a first-called ambulance arrived much earlier. And he persistently suggested that Chauvin’s knee was not on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, as prosecutors argued – and instead suggested that it be over Floyd’s back, shoulder blades and arm.
“As a lawyer, you often have some facts that are just … bad for you. But you either want to downplay it or create a different narrative, ”said Mike Brandt, a Minneapolis attorney who is closely monitoring the case.
Every good defender has to try “to take what you can get,” said Brandt. “Sometimes we say in a process that you want to throw as much mud on the wall as possible and hope that some of it sticks.”
On cases ranging from drunken driver arrests to murders, Nelson, 46, is one of a dozen attorneys who take turns working with a police union legal protection fund to represent officials charged with crimes. One of his larger cases involved Amy Senser, the wife of Joe Senser, a former close end to the Minnesota Vikings, who was convicted of a death in 2011.
Full coverage: George Floyd dies
Nelson has joked with witnesses at times and, perhaps to connect with the jury, has made his occasional fiddling with technology or mispronunciation of words easy. Hailing from Minnesota, he spoke to Police Commissioner Medaria Arradondo during a hiatus and asked if he remembered the battle song for Minneapolis Roosevelt – the high school they both attended.
Aside from the easier moments, Nelson seems to be well prepared, even when facing a law enforcement team that is many times larger. He has carried out his main message harshly and consistently: Floyd’s illegal drug use is more responsible for his death than anything chauvin did. An autopsy found fentanyl and methamphetamine in Floyd’s system.
During the second week of the trial, Nelson played a clip of a video with the officer’s body camera and asked two witnesses if they could hear Floyd say, “I ate too many drugs.” The audio was difficult to see, but Nelson let one State investigators agree with his version of the quote. The prosecution later played a longer clip and the investigator pulled back and said he believed Floyd said, “I don’t do drugs.”
When the state came up with medical experts to testify that Floyd died because his oxygen was cut off, not because of drugs, Nelson questioned the substance of their findings that the levels found in Floyd were either low or that people were significantly higher survived. However, he also frequently asked questions to include the term “illegal drugs”, pointed out that there is no legal reason for a person to have methamphetamine in their system, and asked a witness if they would agree to the Number of deaths given by people mixing meth and fentanyl has been resurrected.
“This is a typical tactic that we would call good defense lawyers,” said David Schultz, a law professor at the University of Minnesota who is closely monitoring the process. “Not all of them are as subtle or talented as Eric Nelson.”
When the paramedics first testified on site, they were asked, among other things, why they did a “load and go” – that is, they put Floyd in their ambulance and move a few blocks before starting treatment . This delayed potentially life-saving treatment, but it also led to another recurring Nelson issue that prosecutors rejected: officers were distracted from looking after Floyd by a threatening crowd.
The video of the scene countered the argument, showing about 15 people watching Floyd being held back, including several teenagers and girls, although some yelled at officers to leave Floyd and check him for a pulse.
Nelson has at times targeted the mountain of onlookers, surveillance and body camera videos offered by the police, suggesting that he is only telling part of the story and may be misleading. At one point Nelson used the term “camera perspective” to indicate that Chauvin’s knee was not where the camera appeared to be showing it.
He has also argued that Chauvin was merely following the training he received during his 19-year career, despite several police officers – including Arradondo – testifying otherwise. Nelson showed the judges a picture from the training materials of a trainer with a knee on the neck of an instructor playing a suspect, and got some witnesses to generally agree that the use of force can look bad, but it is lawful.
Brandt said that anything Nelson can do now – while the state is presenting his case – is huge and will only serve as building blocks that he can use when he starts presenting his own case.
Schultz said lawyers have to be careful. He noticed how Nelson’s questioning of Donald Williams, one of the noisiest onlookers, sparked a backlash on social media. Users accused Nelson, who pushed Williams to be angry and repeated his swear words in court, to immortalize an “angry black man”.
Some jurors might have felt that too, said Schultz.
“As a lawyer, you have to sell yourself to the jury,” said Schultz. “And a lawyer who takes the risk of going too far risks being disliked by the jury, and that hurts the case too.”
For full AP coverage of George Floyd’s death, please visit: https://apnews.com/hub/death-of-george-floyd