Chauvin Trial Day 2: Young Witnesses Offer Emotional Testimonies

On the second day of Derek Chauvin’s trial, eyewitnesses painted a harrowing and consistent picture of what they saw during the fatal arrest of George Floyd.,

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MINNEAPOLIS — She was the teenager whose video of George Floyd’s final moments rippled across the globe. And in a courtroom on Tuesday, Darnella Frazier, now 18, shared her story publicly for the first time, testifying that she remained haunted by Mr. Floyd’s cries for help as she watched a police officer kneel on his neck.

Ms. Frazier, at times crying, spoke softly during emotional testimony on the second day of the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former officer facing murder charges. As her voice cracked, Ms. Frazier described how what she witnessed that day last May had changed her life. She sometimes lies awake at night, she said, “apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life.”

“When I look at George Floyd, I look at my dad,” she added. “I look at my brothers. I look at my cousins, my uncles because they are all Black. I have a Black father. I have a Black brother. I have Black friends. And I look at that, and I look at how that could have been one of them.”

Ms. Frazier was among a diverse group of bystanders who by accident became eyewitnesses to one of the most high-profile police brutality cases of recent decades. They were Black and white. There was a firefighter, high school students and a mixed martial artist.

Their stories were an expression of the trauma of a city that is still struggling to rebuild physically and emotionally from last summer’s unrest.

Most of Tuesday’s witnesses were children and teenagers at the time of the fatal arrest, and they painted a harrowing, consistent picture of what transpired at the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in South Minneapolis. They all said they have struggled with what they saw.

“It seemed like he knew it was over for him,” Ms. Frazier said in her testimony, referring to Mr. Floyd. “He was terrified. He was suffering. This was a cry for help, definitely.”

The bystanders offered accounts of converging outside of a convenience store for the most mundane of reasons — getting a phone cord, buying snacks, taking a walk — only to end up becoming central players in a drama that would grip much of the country.

ImageJerry Blackwell, a prosecutor, questioned a witness in the trial of Derek Chauvin, a former police officer accused of murdering Mr. Floyd.
Jerry Blackwell, a prosecutor, questioned a witness in the trial of Derek Chauvin, a former police officer accused of murdering Mr. Floyd.Credit…Court TV still image, via Reuters

They urged the police to render aid to Mr. Floyd to no avail. They excoriated Mr. Chauvin and the three other officers on the scene, and said they felt scared that the police would harm them, including in one instance when Mr. Chauvin put his hand on his mace.

The defense has said that the crowd influenced the way the police responded after arriving on the scene. It has become a crucial point of contention between the prosecution and the defense.

Mr. Chauvin’s lawyer said that the officers felt threatened at what they saw as a growing and increasingly hostile crowd, which diverted their attention from caring for Mr. Floyd. The prosecution has attempted to portray the bystanders as ordinary people who were scared and presented no danger to the officers.

Those different views reflect longstanding tensions between Black residents in Minneapolis and the police who patrol their neighborhoods.

Mr. Chauvin’s lawyer, Eric J. Nelson, did little to press most of the young witnesses or challenge their accounts.

Ms. Frazier’s 9-year-old cousin, who was with her outside the convenience store, Cup Foods, testified to the trauma of seeing Mr. Floyd struggle as Mr. Chauvin knelt on his neck.

“I was sad and kind of mad,” said the young girl, Judeah Reynolds, who, like the other minors who testified, was not shown on camera during her testimony. “It felt like he was stopping his breathing and it was kind of like hurting him.”

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Law enforcement stood outside the Hennepin County Government Center, where the anticipated trial is taking place.Credit…Aaron Nesheim for The New York Times

Ms. Frazier, who was 17 at the time of Mr. Floyd’s death, testified that she and her cousin were going to a store she had been to many times before to buy snacks. Surveillance video showed what looked like a casual stroll, with the cousins smiling at each other as they approached the entrance to Cup Foods. Ms. Frazier wore a hoodie over her head and comfortable blue pants, while her cousin, petite with a poof of hair, wore a teal T-shirt that said “Love.”

When she saw officers pinning Mr. Floyd, Ms. Frazier said, she ushered her cousin into the store and then came back out. She pulled out her phone and tapped record, creating a roughly 10-minute clip that she would later post on Facebook.

She recorded what was happening because “it wasn’t right,” said Ms. Frazier, who sat in the witness box wearing a blue pantsuit and allowed her tears to flow at times. Like her, most of the six eyewitnesses who testified on Tuesday described feelings of helplessness and anger.

If they felt like they were unable to do anything for Mr. Floyd as he was pinned to the street last year, several of the witnesses suggested that this was their chance to do something for him.

“I just want the truth to come out,” said Kaylynn Ashley Gilbert, a 17-year-old high school senior, who had stopped by Cup Foods to buy snacks and a cellphone cord with a friend, and became distressed by what she saw happening to Mr. Floyd.

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An image from a video taken from a police body camera released by the Minneapolis Police Department shows bystanders filming the arrest that led to Mr. Floyd’s death.Credit…Minneapolis Police Department, via Associated Press

Genevieve Hansen, 27, had visited a community garden on her day off and was walking home when she saw emergency lights down the block. A firefighter and emergency medical technician, she said she went to see if any of her colleagues were there. She came upon a scene that quickly worried her, with Mr. Floyd going limp on the pavement and a woman screaming that the officers were killing him.

She told the officers that they needed to check his pulse but they shooed her away, she testified.

“I was desperate to help,” she said, dabbing her eyes with a tissue at times during her testimony. “I would have been able to provide medical attention to the best of my abilities, and this human was denied that right.”

Donald Williams, 33, a mixed martial arts fighter, went to Cup Foods that day to buy a drink and clear his head after going fishing with friends and his son. He remembered becoming a bit disturbed when he saw the life being sucked out of a fish they had caught and placed in a plastic bag, he said.

He was drawn to the commotion by the police car, and quickly became upset when he saw Mr. Chauvin’s knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck. It appeared to be a blood choke, he testified, referring to having seen the hold render people unconscious as a fighter. He grew so frustrated at the officers that he began yelling obscenities at them.

Mr. Williams then took a highly unusual step: He called the police on the police.

“I believe I witnessed a murder,” he told a 911 operator, according to a recording of a call he placed that evening that was played in court. On the witness stand, Mr. Williams wiped his eyes as the recording played.

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Ribbons inscribed with names of those killed by police officers in Minnesota hung from a barrier outside the courthouse.Credit…Aaron Nesheim for The New York Times

The operator asked Mr. Williams if he wanted to speak with a sergeant. Yes, he told her.

“That was bogus what they just did to this man,” he told her. “He was unresponsive. He wasn’t resisting arrest.”

On the 911 recording, Mr. Williams could then be heard addressing the officers: “Y’all murderers, bro!”

One of the prosecutors asked Mr. Williams why he called 911.

“I just felt like that was the right thing to do,” he replied. “I didn’t know what else to do.”

In cross-examining Mr. Williams, Mr. Chauvin’s lawyer pressed him on his attitude toward the officers. The lawyer, Mr. Nelson, repeated several vulgar statements that Mr. Williams had made to the officers, and repeatedly asked if he had been growing in anger that evening. A seemingly agitated Mr. Williams pushed back.

“I grew professional and professional,” he said. “I stayed in my body. You can’t paint me out to be angry.”

Ms. Hansen, too, seemed to take exception to Mr. Nelson’s effort to portray the bystanders as an angry mob. During a very testy exchange, Mr. Nelson asked Ms. Hansen if she would describe people as upset or angry.

“I don’t know if you’ve seen anybody be killed, but it’s upsetting,” she responded, earning an admonition from the judge.

John Eligon and Tim Arango reported from Minneapolis, and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs from New York. Marie Fazio contributed reporting from Jacksonville, Fla.

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