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7th Day Of Chauvin Trial: Defense Builds Its Case That Rules Allowed Use Of Force

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It is Day 7 of the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former police officer charged with murdering George Floyd last May. At this stage, the prosecution is still calling witnesses, focusing on the legality of the force used against Floyd. But in cross-examination, the defense also built its case, arguing that Chauvin did not go beyond what the law and the department rules allow. NPR's Martin Kaste is in Minneapolis watching the trial and joins us now.

Hey, Martin.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So tell us what the prosecution's focus has been on today.

KASTE: Well, today has been about the fine points of the rules that govern police use of force - you know, what's trained but also what's allowed by the department here. A lot of the focus has been on the way, of course, that Chauvin had his knee on the back of Floyd's neck or, as the defense frames it, his shin on Floyd's shoulder blade.

And central to this was Minneapolis Police Lieutenant Johnny Mercil. He trains fellow officers in how to subdue suspects who are resisting, sort of what kinds of moves to use. And prosecutors showed him the well-known image of Chauvin with his knee on Floyd. And he asked him if the Minneapolis Police Department trained for this - or trained this move, I should say. Mercil said no. And then the prosecutor asked him if it would ever be allowed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVE SCHLEICHER: And under what circumstances would that be authorized? How long can you do that?

JOHNNY MERCIL: I don't know if there's a time frame. It would depend on the circumstances at the time.

SCHLEICHER: Which would include what?

MERCIL: The type of resistance you're getting from the subject that you're putting the knee on.

SCHLEICHER: Right. And so if there was - say, for example, the subject was under control and handcuffed, would this be authorized?

MERCIL: I would say no.

CHANG: Wait. So does Mercil, this trainer's assessment, make clear whether this use of force was legitimate or not?

KASTE: Not necessarily because this is all complicated by all these other factors that go into use of force. For instance, the defense points out that a knee to the shoulder blade is something police officers can do when they handcuff someone lying in the prone position to kind of get leverage. They also - they got this witness to confirm that a knee could be used to hold a suspect in place while an officer, say, waits for backup to arrive. But he did draw the line on saying that a cop could hold someone this way while waiting for EMTs, which is what happened in this case.

I mean, the truth is these neck restraints are considered legitimate moves in policing when you put pressure on the side of the neck - not on the windpipe, but on the neck - to temporarily incapacitate someone. But it really depends on circumstances. The use-of-force rules are kind of on a spectrum with room for interpretation, and the defense really wants to highlight that spectrum.

CHANG: OK, all those factors make sense, but what about the length of time Chauvin had his knee on Floyd, which was more than nine minutes and long after Floyd appeared unresponsive?

KASTE: Yeah, that was the heart of the prosecution's attack today. They had this trainer explain the dangers of positional asphyxia and the idea that you can't breathe very easily in that position and how it's important - it's the officer's responsibility to roll someone to a side as soon as they can - the recovery position, they call it - to facilitate breathing. But here, too, the defense is sowing doubts. On cross-examination, the defense asked Lieutenant Mercil if suspects ever fake medical difficulties as a way of resisting arrest.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERIC NELSON: Have you had people say, I can't breathe?

MERCIL: Yes, sir.

NELSON: And do you - were there circumstances during the course of your career as a patrol officer where you didn't believe that that person was having a medical emergency?

MERCIL: Yes, sir.

CHANG: Interesting. OK, Martin, where does the trial go from here?

KASTE: Well, now it's about - we're still waiting for the defense to start its phase of the trial. A lot of this may hinge on a man named Maurice Hall. He was an associate - he's an associate of George Floyd. He was with him that day. He's in jail right now on separate legal problems. But he - you know, the defense really wants to ask him about drug use that day. He wants to invoke his Fifth Amendment rights not to self-incriminate. And so right now the judge is trying to broker a deal where the prosecution and the defense can agree on a list of questions to ask him without him incriminating himself.

CHANG: That is NPR's Martin Kaste in Minneapolis.

Thank you, Martin.

KASTE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.