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Floyd’s Drug Use, Prior Arrest Central to Murder Defense (2)

April 13, 2021, 4:45 PM; Updated: April 13, 2021, 9:58 PM

George Floyd had a history of drug use and confrontations with the police, witnesses said as the attorney for former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin began his defense in the murder trial.

Shawanda Hill, a passenger in the car with Floyd on the day he died, testified Tuesday that Floyd was “happy, normal, talkative, alert” when they met in a store, and he offered her a ride home on May 25, 2020. But he fell asleep in the car, becoming lethargic and incoherent when the passengers tried to rouse him, Hill said.

Defense attorney Eric Nelson, who opened his defense Tuesday, has signaled that he plans to argue that Floyd wasn’t killed by Chauvin but by a combination of fentanyl and methamphetamine in his system and pre-existing health conditions, including high blood pressure and an adrenaline-producing tumor.

Floyd had fentanyl and methamphetamine in his system when he died, but toxicologists called by prosecutors previously testified they were below fatal levels.

Hill said Floyd became more alert and panicked when police arrived to question him about a possible counterfeit bill used at the store. Floyd began shouting he was afraid police would shoot him, Hill testified.

Prior Arrest Shown

That echoed similar statements Floyd made during a May 6, 2019, traffic stop shown to jurors. During that stop, officers yell at Floyd to spit out a possible pill, while Floyd says he is worried he would be shot.

Retired Hennepin County paramedic Michelle Moseng, who had treated Floyd after that 2019 incident, testified that Floyd told her he had taken an opioid during his arrest and that he had been taking opioids “every 20 minutes” prior to his arrest. Floyd was taken to a hospital in that instance, where paramedics recorded his elevated blood pressure. However, he was released after two hours of observation and without being administered any medication to counteract the opioids, the paramedic testified.

The defense comes after prosecutors spent two weeks presenting witnesses and testimony that Chauvin caused Floyd’s death by kneeling on his back and neck for more than nine minutes while he lay prone and handcuffed on the street. Several medical experts called by prosecutors testified that Floyd died from low oxygen levels caused by his restraint and Chauvin’s failure to relieve him and provide care.

Chauvin faces a maximum penalty of 40 years in prison if convicted of the most serious charge against him, second-degree murder. A charge of third-degree murder carries a penalty of up to 25 years, and manslaughter a maximum sentence of 10 years.

Peter Chang, an officer with the Minneapolis Park Police, who also responded to the scene when Floyd died, testified that the crowd of bystanders grew larger and more aggressive during the arrest. Nelson has emphasized the chaotic nature of the scene as police sought to subdue Floyd. He argued onlookers shouted at the officers and filmed the arrest, inhibiting their ability to restrain Floyd and provide him with medical aid.

Police Training

Nelson also opened the door for witnesses to discuss whether Chauvin followed proper police training in arresting Floyd.

“Derek Chauvin was justified, was acting with objective reasonableness following Minneapolis police policy and current standards of law enforcement in his interactions with Mr. Floyd,” said Barry Brodd, a use of force expert called by the defense.

Brodd said during questioning that he didn’t believe Chauvin’s use of force was deadly. What’s more, officers can apply a higher degree of force when trying to restrain an individual resisting arrest.

“Police officers don’t have to fight fair,” he said, also noting that officers may consider a subject’s drug use when weighing whether to apply force during an arrest.

“People under the influence of drugs may not hear what you’re asking them to do,” Brodd said, adding that “they don’t feel pain,” among other things.

Assistant Attorney General Erin Eldridge cross examined two defense witnesses Tuesday morning, focusing on the different outcomes of Floyd’s 2019 and 2020 interactions with police, asking them to confirm that Floyd survived the 2019 encounter and didn’t “drop dead.”

(Updated to include details from defense witness testimony)

To contact the reporters on this story: Adam M. Taylor in Washington at ataylor@bgov.com; Ian Lopez in Washington at ilopez@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Andrew Childers at achilders@bloomberglaw.com; Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergindustry.com; Meghashyam Mali at mmali@bloombergindustry.com

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