Sobs of grief overcame a man testifying Wednesday afternoon in the Derek Chauvin murder trial as he watched video of himself standing by as police struggled with George Floyd, who called out for his mother and shouted “I can’t breathe” on the night of his arrest and death last spring.
Charles McMillian said in Hennepin County District Court that he came upon the scene early on when police detained Floyd on suspicion of passing a fake $20 bill at the Cup Foods convenience store at E. 38th Street and S. Chicago Avenue.
McMillian said he tried to get Floyd to calm down as two officers tried to get him into the back of their squad car.
“I’m watching Mr. Floyd, I’m trying to get him to understand that when you make a mistake, once they get you in handcuffs there’s no such thing as being claustrophobic, you have to go,” he said. “I’ve had interactions with officers myself and I realize once you get in the cuffs you can’t win.”
Prosecutor Erin Eldridge played officer-worn body camera footage as exterior store surveillance video also rolled. It showed McMillian calmly watching the officers having difficulty getting an increasing agitated Floyd into their squad.
Floyd cried “Momma, Momma, Momma” repeatedly and yell out that “I can’t breathe” on the video. Once the video stopped, the global livestream showed McMillian wiping away tears, fighting sobs.
“Helpless” is how McMillian said he felt as he watched Floyd and the officers. “I don’t have a momma either, I understand him.”
“Oh, my god,” the witness said in a breathy whisper. With that, Judge Peter Cahill called for a brief break to give McMillian, 61, time regain his composure.
Earlier, McMillian testified that he recognized Chauvin and had seen him as recently as five days earlier.
“I pulled up to the squad car somewhere in south Minneapolis, and I see Mr. Chauvin, and I told him like I tell other officers that the end of the day you go home to your family safe and that the next person goes home to their family safe,” he said.
When proceedings resumed, newly released video from Chauvin’s body-worn camera showed McMillian confront the officer as he got into his squad after Floyd was taken away in an ambulance.
McMillian reminded Chauvin of what he had told him five days earlier. about getting home safe to his family, as the next person should be able to.
Chauvin then defends his actions, saying, “We’ve gotta control this guy because he’s a sizable guy, looks like he’s probably on something.”
Prosecutor Erin Eldridge asked McMillian, “Why did you feel the need to talk to Mr. Chauvin?” McMillian replied: “Because what I watched was wrong.”
“And did you feel it was important to tell him?” Eldridge said.
“Yes ma’am.” McMillian answered.
George Floyd’s youngest brother occupied the lone family seat in the courtroom for the afternoon session and did not watch the video when the officers were trying to get George Floyd into the squad car. Rodney Floyd stared down, his eyes wide during that video moment.
When video was shown of George Floyd yelling “Mama” repeatedly and “I can’t breathe,” again Rodney Floyd averted his eyes while looking down and shaking his head.
During a break in the trial, the brother said in the hall that he did glimpse out of the corner of his eye at some of the video.
Earlier Wednesday, surveillance video shown inside the store where he bought cigarettes with suspected counterfeit currency before his deadly encounter with police late last spring.
In the footage disclosed publicly for the first time, Floyd ambled about Cup Foods for several minutes and appeared fidgety at times while chatting with others inside as Christopher Martin, who was working as a clerk in the store at the time, explained what was being shown. Floyd is seen inside the store with Maurice Hall and Shawanda Hill, who were with him in the SUV when he was first detained by police.
Martin, who lived above the store, said Floyd eventually bought cigarettes with a $20 bill. Martin said the color of the bill made him suspicious that it was fake, and he went outside to talk to Floyd twice about it.
Eventually, someone called police and that set off the sequence of events that led to Floyd’s arrest under Chauvin’s knee and death later that night.
“When I saw the bill I noticed it had a blue pigment to it, kind of like a $100 bill would have, so I found that kind of odd and assumed it was fake,” said Martin, 19.
Martin said store policy meant that he would have to pay for any counterfeit currency he and his co-workers accepted.
“I took it anyway and was willing to put it on my tab, and then I second guessed myself,” he said.
Martin said he twice went out with co-workers trying in vain to get Floyd to come back in the store and deal with the suspect fake bill. Floyd didn’t say much, but didn’t come back into the store.
“He just seemed like he didn’t, like, want this to happen, he was just kind of like ‘Ah why is this happening’ ” Martin said. He said his manager then directed his co-worker to call 911 and Martin went back about his business. Later he heard commotion outside the store and saw Floyd pinned to the ground.
“George was motionless, limp and Chauvin seemed very, he was in a resting state, meaning like he rested his knee on his neck. I pulled my phone out first and called my mom and told her not to come downstairs and then I started recording.”
He said he later deleted the recording after he saw the ambulance drive away in a different direction from the hospital.
“That made it clear to me that he was no longer with us,” he said. Pressed on why he deleted the recording, he said, “I just didn’t want to have to show it to anyone and be questioned about it.”
Later in his testimony, Martin was asked why he could be seen on exterior store video surveillance pacing about near the arrest scene and clasping his hands atop his head.
“At this point I was kind of emotional,” he said, recalling a conversation with another Black man at the scene, saying, ” ‘They’re not gonna help him, this is what we have to deal with.’ ” Cahill ordered the comment stricken from the record.
Martin said he was feeling “disbelief and guilt.”
Why guilt? Prosecutor Matthew Frank asked.
“If I would have just not taken the bill, this could have been avoided,” Martin replied.
Afterward, he went back into the store and continued his shift, but he didn’t stay employed at the store long.
“I didn’t feel safe,” he said.
As for Floyd’s demeanor, Martin said he was amicable, and he saw him as just another customer. Martin noticed his size and asked Floyd whether he played baseball. Floyd told him that he played football.
“He went on to respond, but it kind of took him a little long to get to what he was trying to say so, it would appear that he was high,” Martin said.
The defense has focused in pretrial motions and during its opening statement on Floyd’s drug use and what impact it might have had on his health.
Nelson’s time questioning Martin dealt a fair amount with Floyd appearing to be under the influence of drugs.
He confirmed that he told investigators earlier that Floyd’s speech was delayed as he “was trying to form the words.”
Martin again said, this time under prosecution questioning that Floyd was friendly and “just seemed to be enjoying just an average Memorial Day. But he did seem high.”
The prosecution then called Christopher Belfrey, 45, who was parked to pick up food with his fiancée when he saw officers Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng confront Floyd in the SUV, with Lane’s gun drawn.
Belfrey began to record with his phone, but then moved his car across the street because “I didn’t want to be trapped between the whole commotion going on.” He then resumed recording as the officers sat Floyd on the pavement, but soon stopped for good, explaining, “I was scared. … One of the officers started staring at me.”
Also, he went on to say, “We seen them placing him in the police car, and we kept on driving. I thought it was over.”
Earlier Wednesday, Cahill called an unexpected break after a female juror stood up, waved and gestured toward the door. She exited quickly once the break was called.
The ailing juror returned and was seated in the witness stand for a conversation with the judge.
She told Cahill she was “shaky but better.” She went on to say she’s been having trouble sleeping. “I’ve been awake since 2 a.m.,” she said.
The woman then reassured the judge that “I think I’ll be OK going forward … I feel like there’s a tension that’s gone a little bit.”
The third day of testimony in the trial started with a firefighter back on the witness stand who detailed how her pleas for Floyd’s life failed to resonate last spring with the Minneapolis police officer who had the handcuffed man pinned to the pavement.
Genevieve Hansen resumed testifying after being reprimanded by Cahill for being argumentative under cross examination by defense attorney Eric Nelson.
Nelson raised potential inconsistencies in her testimony compared to earlier statements to investigators, such as whether Chauvin had one hand in his pocket. He reminded her that she had described the 46-year-old Floyd as a small man, despite his being roughly 6 feet 3 inches tall and weighing well more than 200 pounds.
The attorney for the fired officer also pressed her on whether she’s ever had anyone yell at her or tell her she was doing her job wrong while fighting a fire, an apparent allusion to how she and other bystanders on May 25 reacted to the tactics police used to detain Floyd. She repeatedly said it would not faze her, because she is confident in her training.
The back-and-forth grew testy, prompting Cahill to dismiss the jury for the day. He then told her it is Nelson’s job to ask her questions.
“You will not argue with the court, you will not argue with counsel,” Cahill said repeatedly, cutting off Hansen.
Her time Wednesday morning, was brief. Nelson asked her whether she showed police her firefighter identification as she offered to assist. She said she did not. Prosecutor Frank followed up on that point and asked Hansen whether she had her work ID on her during a day off. She said she did not.
Hansen’s testimony had similarities to others who came before her in the Minneapolis courtroom Tuesday to give their accounts as bystanders at E. 38th Street and S. Chicago Avenue to Floyd’s arrest before his death that night.
Along with trying to persuade Chauvin and the other officers to stop restraining Floyd on the pavement, Hansen said she begged for permission to use her training as an emergency medical technician and tend to Floyd.
“I identified myself right away because I noticed that he needed medical attention,” said the 27-year-old Hansen, a two-year member of the Fire Department who was walking by the scene on her day off. “It didn’t take long to notice that he had an altered level of consciousness. My attention moved from Mr. Floyd to, ‘How can I gain access to this patient and give him medical attention or provide direction to the officers?’ ”
Officer Tou Thao repeatedly rebuffed her.
“There is a man being killed,” she testified, “and I would have been able to provide medical attention to the best of my abilities, and this human was not provided that right.”
That sense of helplessness also was expressed Tuesday’s testimony from Darnella Frazier, the teenager whose viral video of Floyd rendered unconscious under Chauvin’s knee ignited sometimes violent protest and riots in the Twin Cities and around the world.
“I’ve stayed up apologizing and apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life,” said Frazier, now 18 years old. “It’s not what I should have done; it’s what [Chauvin] should have done.”
Frazier also brought up the issue of how Black men are treated by the criminal justice system for the first time since testimony began Monday morning.
“When I look at George Floyd I look at my dad, I look at my brothers, I look at my cousins, my uncles, because they are all Black,” said Frazier, her voice faltering. “I have a Black father, I have a Black brother, I have Black friends. I look at that and I look at how it could have been one of them.”
Chauvin is charged with second- and third-degree murder and manslaughter. Three other fired officers, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Thao, are expected to stand trial in August on charges of aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter.
The 14 jurors, two of them alternates, are diverse beyond the population they were chosen from and cover many decades in age. Six of the jurors are people of color and eight are white. Nine are women, and five are men.
Staff writers Chao Xiong and Rochelle Olson contributed to this report.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482