The lead Minnesota state investigator on the George Floyd case changed his testimony at the trial of Derek Chauvin on Wednesday, telling the court that he now believed Floyd said, “I ain’t do no drugs,” not “I ate too many drugs,” during his May 2020 arrest.
Senior Special Agent James Reyerson of Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension initially agreed with Floyd’s defence attorney that it sounded like Floyd said the latter in police body-camera video played in Hennepin County District Court in Minneapolis Wednesday.
But after listening to a longer version of the recording, Reyerson said, he believed Floyd was, in fact, saying: “I ain’t do no drugs.”
Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, died on May 25, 2020, after Chauvin, who is white, pressed a knee on the back of Floyd’s neck and his back for around nine minutes as two other officers held him down. Video of the arrest captured by a bystander prompted widespread outrage, setting off protests across the U.S. and around the world.
Chauvin, 45, is facing trial on charges of second-degree unintentional murder; third-degree murder; and second-degree manslaughter. Wednesday marked the eighth day of the trial.
Drug use a key question in trial
The issue of Floyd’s drug use is significant to Chauvin’s defence. The prosecution says Chauvin pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck caused his death. But the defence argues Chauvin did what his training taught him and that it was a combination of Floyd’s underlying medical conditions, drug use and adrenaline flowing through his system that ultimately killed him.
Floyd had been detained outside a convenience store after being suspected of paying with a counterfeit bill. All four officers were later fired.
Chauvin’s lawyer, Eric Nelson, had earlier in the day introduced this evidence during his cross-examination of prosecution witness Jody Stiger, a Los Angeles Police Department sergeant and use-of-force expert.
Nelson played a snippet of video from the body-worn camera of J. Alexander Kueng, one of four officers involved in the arrest and later fired, and asked Stiger if he could hear Floyd say, “I ate too many drug” as he was handcuffed and prone on the pavement, pinned by the officers.
Stiger replied that he could not make out those words in the footage.
Later, Nelson attempted to get confirmation of the comment while cross-examining Reyerson. Nelson played the clip again, and asked whether it sounded like Floyd said, “I ate too many drugs.”
“Yes, it did,” Reyerson said.
After a short break, Reyerson was questioned by prosecutor Matthew Frank and told the court that during the break, he was able to watch a longer version of the clip that included discussion by officers about Floyd’s potential drug use.
“Having heard it in context, were you able to tell what Mr. Floyd was saying there?” Frank asked Reyerson after the clip was played again in court.
“Yes, I believe Mr. Floyd is saying, ‘I ain’t doing no drugs,'” Reyerson said.
Chauvin had responsibility to re-evaluate use of force: expert witness
Earlier in the day, court heard from Stiger, appearing as a paid prosecution witness providing expert testimony on use of force, say that Chauvin had a responsibility to re-evaluate pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck during their encounter as the health of the 46-year old Black man was clearly “deteriorating.”
Stiger had testified the day before that the pressure being exerted on Floyd was excessive and could cause positional asphyxia and lead to death. On Wednesday he reaffirmed that the force Chauvin used on Floyd was “not objectively reasonable.”
Prosecutor Steve Schleicher asked Stiger whether Chauvin had an obligation to take into account the distress Floyd was displaying when considering whether to continue the type of force he was applying.
“Absolutely. As the time went on … his health was deteriorating,” Stiger said. “His breath was getting lower. His tone of voice was getting lower. His movements were starting to cease.
“So at that point, as on officer on scene, you have a responsibility to realize, ‘OK, something is not right. Something has changed drastically from what was occurring earlier.’ So therefore, you have responsibility to take some type of action.”
During cross-examination, Chauvin’s lawyer asked a question he has posed to other witnesses — whether there are times when a suspect can fake the need for medical attention. Stiger agreed there were.
Obligated to believe
But when asked by the prosecutor whether an officer can “opt not to believe” the detained individual, Stiger said an officer is still obligated to believe them.
“That’s part of our duty,” he said.
Stiger also testified that Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck or neck area from the time officers put Floyd on the ground until paramedics arrived.
“That particular force did not change during the entire restraint period?” Schleicher asked as he showed the jury a composite image of five photos taken from various bystander and body-cam videos of the arrest.
“Correct,” Stiger replied.
But Nelson was able to get Stiger to agree with a number of statements. Stiger agreed with Nelson, for example, that an officer’s actions must be viewed from the point of view of a reasonable officer on the scene, not in hindsight.
He also agreed that a not-risky situation can suddenly escalate and that a person in handcuffs can still pose a threat to an officer.
Stiger also agreed that when Chauvin arrived at the scene and saw officers struggling to get him in the back seat of the squad car, it would have been within police policy guidelines for Chauvin to have stunned Floyd with a Taser.
And he agreed with Nelson that sometimes the use of force “looks really bad” but is still lawful.