During closing arguments in the Derek Chauvin trial Monday, prosecutor Jerry Blackwell introduced a figurative witness, “common sense,” in the case of the former Minneapolis police officer, who faces murder and manslaughter charges in connection with the death of George Floyd.
But there is another non-human witness, and that’s video of what took place outside Minneapolis’ Cup Foods last Memorial Day.
The indelible clip of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes influenced public opinion long before the trial started last month, along with surveillance-camera and police body-camera footage, featured prominently during testimony and Monday’s closing arguments.
Perhaps more than in the courtroom, the video has played an outsized role in coverage of the trial on TV, a visual medium where what people see can be more powerful than what they hear. And it continued that role Monday, as Blackwell advised the jury: “You can believe your eyes, ladies and gentlemen. It was what you thought it was. It was what you saw. It was homicide.”
Powerful moment:‘Excruciating’: Video of officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck stands out in TV trial coverage
ABC News legal analyst Sunny Hostin, a co-host of “The View,” called the video “the star witness for the prosecution” when summing up the seven-hour court day with “World News Tonight” anchor David Muir.
“The video here is the strongest piece of evidence I have ever seen in a case against a police officer,” said Hostin, one of many TV legal experts who noted its prominence in a case that has drawn worldwide attention.
While prosecutors again focused on the cellphone video recorded by teen Darnella Frazier, a bystander and trial witness, defense attorney Eric Nelson made frequent use of video, too. Much of it was body-camera footage that detailed earlier parts of the police encounter with Floyd, including his resistance to being put in a police car, as Nelson urged jurors to consider events that led up to the man being pinned on the street.
Closing arguments:Derek Chauvin trial live updates: Prosecutors encourage jurors to ‘believe their eyes’; defense emphasizes ‘totality of the circumstances’
The lawyers’ use of that video was also the subject of analysis by TV anchors, reporters and legal experts who spoke during breaks and after the prolonged court day on cable news, legal channels and broadcast networks, with ABC, CBS and NBC pre-empting regular programs to cover in full.
Anchors and legal analysts examined the lawyers’ video strategies as much as anything in their closing arguments, with some, including MSNBC legal contributor Paul Butler, questioning the defense approach.
“I’m not sure that that’s in the best interest of their client, because every time you see that videotape, you’re reminded of Mr. Floyd’s agony and his suffering and it’s really hard to focus on whatever point the defense was trying to make,” Butler said.
When NBC News anchor Kate Snow noted how Eric Nelson used video from Chauvin’s police colleagues in an attempt to provide context, legal analyst Danny Cevallos responded that it could be a double-edged sword.
“That video has an audio component and you can hear George Floyd throughout that video. You even hear sometimes Derek Chauvin saying some of the things that the prosecution thought was helpful to their case,” even if the defense’s clip selection avoided showing Chauvin kneeling on Floyd, Cevallos said. “Repetition gets emblazoned in jurors’ heads. If they hear this pleading for the life over and over again, it might just sink in.”
While TV pundits debated strategies, no one debated the power of video in Chauvin’s trial and how much it has changed the dynamics from past courtroom proceedings involving police.
On Fox’s “The Five,” panelist Jesse Watters said he believes Chauvin will be convicted of all three charges, based on the defense not being able to change the venue, good jury selection by the prosecution and the visual evidence. “The video is very powerful and it speaks for itself,” he said.
CNN correspondent Sara Sidner, who has been a courtroom pool reporter while covering the trial from Minneapolis, acknowledged the emotional resonance.
“Seeing that video over and over and over again today was hard to watch, just like it always has been,” she said.
As analysts endlessly parsed video footage, the one trial element that has been completely off camera, the jury, is even harder to read in the age of COVID-19.
When “World News Tonight” anchor David Muir asked if the jury reacted to the prosecution’s believe-what-you-see instruction, Matt Stone, an ABC News producer who was in the courtroom Monday, couldn’t provide a definitive answer.
“Obviously, all the jurors are wearing masks,” he said. “So, it is a little bit difficult for us to tell what their facial recognitions are (based) on what the prosecution has said.”