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Derek Chauvin's trial in death of George Floyd begins with showing jurors video of his final moments

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s head and neck for 4 minutes and 45 seconds as Floyd cried out for help, stayed on his neck as Floyd flailed and had seizures for 53 seconds, and then remained on a non-responsive Floyd for another 3 minutes and 51 seconds, prosecutors said during opening statements in Chauvin’s criminal trial on Monday.

“Mr. Derek Chauvin betrayed this badge when he used excessive and unreasonable force upon the body of Mr. George Floyd,” prosecuting attorney Jerry Blackwell said. “That he put his knees upon his neck and his back, grinding and crushing him until the very breath — no, ladies and gentlemen — until the very life was squeezed out of him.”

The opening statements from Blackwell, as well as a rebuttal from Chauvin’s defense team, highlighted the first day of Chauvin’s long-awaited criminal trial. The legal wrangling comes 10 months after Floyd’s death launched a summer of protest, unrest and a societal reckoning with America’s past and present of anti-Black racism and aggressive policing.

Chauvin, 45, has pleaded not guilty to second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter charges.

Floyd’s death, captured on video, sparked worldwide protests and weeks of civil unrest in cities across the country. Many will be closely watching to see whether the longs days spent in the streets, in what many called the new civil rights movement, will result in justice not just for Floyd, but for the countless other Black Americans who have been abused and killed by police.

Three witnesses, including a 911 dispatcher and two bystanders, also took the stand for the prosecution on Monday to lay the groundwork for Floyd’s final moments. The witness testimony phase of the trial is expected to be take about a month.

The bystander video of Floyd’s final moments, which shocked the nation last year, was also played for jurors in its entirety. Blackwell emphasized that Chauvin was on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds — an update on the initially reported 8 minutes and 46 seconds.

“This case is not about split-second decision-making,” Blackwell said.

In response, attorney Eric Nelson focused the defense’s opening statement on Floyd’s use of fentanyl and methamphetamine and his resistance to the arresting officers.

Nelson also sought to establish doubt as to the precise cause of Floyd’s death, saying it was not Chauvin’s knee, but a combination of drug use and preexisting health problems. And he defended Chauvin’s actions as being within proper training.

“You will learn that Derek Chauvin did exactly what he had been trained to do over the course of his 19-year career,” Nelson said. “The use of force is not attractive, but it is a necessary component of policing.”

In a first for Minnesota, the trial will be broadcast live in its entirety, giving the public a rare peek into the most important case of the Black Lives Matter era.

On Monday morning, Floyd’s family members and several attorneys knelt for 8 minutes and 46 seconds outside the courthouse to commemorate the time Chauvin was originally reported to have stayed on Floyd’s head and neck.

“Today starts a landmark trial that will be a referendum on how far America has come in its quest for equality and justice for all,” said Floyd civil attorney Benjamin Crump.

The trial is being held at a heavily fortified Hennepin County courthouse in downtown Minneapolis, surrounded by fencing and law enforcement. Due to Covid-19 precautions, plexiglass barriers have been set up inside the courtroom and witnesses and attorneys are required to wear masks when not speaking.

After opening statements, three witnesses testified for the prosecution about Floyd’s arrest.

The first witness in the case was Jena Scurry, a Minneapolis 911 dispatcher who directed officers to the Cup Foods store, the scene of Floyd’s death.

Scurry walked the jury through video, not previously publicly released, shot from a police camera across the street from Cup Foods. She was able to watch live video from that feed on the day of Floyd’s death and called a police sergeant to voice her concerns about the arrest.

“You can call me a snitch if you want to,” she said in the recorded call. “I don’t know if they had to use force or not. They got something out of the back of the squad and all of them sat on this man, so I don’t know if they needed to or not.”

On the stand Monday, she explained that she called because she was alarmed by what she saw during Floyd’s arrest.

“My instincts were telling me that something’s wrong. Something was not right. I don’t know what, but something wasn’t right,” Scurry said she thought as she watched the video. “It was an extended period of time.”

On cross-examination, Scurry noted that at one point Squad 330, either Chauvin or former officer Tou Thau, called for a faster ambulance response. She also acknowledged that the video showed the squad car shaking back and forth as officers and Floyd struggled during the arrest.

The second prosecution witness was Alisha Mariee Oyler, an employee at the Speedway gas station across the street from where Floyd died. She noticed that police were “messing with someone” and recorded seven cell phone videos of Floyd’s arrest from a distance, which were played in court.

“I always see the police, they are always messing with people, and it’s wrong, and it’s not right,” she told the court.

The third witness of the day was Donald Wynn Williams II, a professional mixed martial arts fighter who stumbled upon the scene of Floyd’s arrest and was one of the most vocal bystanders.

Relying on his MMA experience, he testified that Chauvin was doing a “blood choke” on Floyd, a hold on the neck that can cut off circulation to the brain. He testified that he and Chauvin made eye contact after Williams mentioned the blood choke out loud.

“When I said it, he acknowledged it,” Williams said.

His testimony will continue on Tuesday.

How two lives collided

Floyd, 46, was born in North Carolina and raised in Houston and moved to Minnesota as an adult for a fresh start, working as security at a restaurant.

Chauvin had been an officer with the Minneapolis Police Department since 2001 until he was fired in the wake of Floyd’s death.

Their lives collided on May 25, 2020, when police were called about a man who had used a counterfeit $20 bill at a Minneapolis store called Cup Foods. Two officers were directed to a parked car with Floyd in the driver’s seat, and they handcuffed him and moved to put him into the back of a police car, according to an amended complaint against Chauvin.

Chauvin and another officer then arrived on the scene and struggled to get Floyd into the vehicle, the complaint states. Chauvin allegedly pulled Floyd to the ground in a prone position and placed his knee on Floyd’s neck and head. His knee remained there even as Floyd pleaded, “I can’t breathe,” said “I’m about to die,” and ultimately stopped breathing, the complaint says. He was pronounced dead at a hospital shortly after.

In his opening statement, Nelson indicated that officers perceived the vocal group of bystanders watching Floyd’s death as a threat to their safety.

“They are screaming at [the officers], causing the officers to divert their attention from the care of Mr. Floyd to the threat that was growing in front of them,” said Nelson.

The Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s autopsy listed Floyd’s cause of death as heart failure due to “law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression,” and ruled it a homicide. The medical examiner, Dr. Andrew Baker, also noted Floyd’s arteriosclerotic and hypertensive heart disease, fentanyl intoxication and recent methamphetamine use as “other significant conditions.”

Chauvin’s defense attorney argued in opening statements that the other conditions were the real cause of Floyd’s death.

“The evidence will show that Mr. Floyd died of a cardiac arrhythmia that occurred as a result of hypertension, his coronary disease, the ingestion of methamphetamine and fentanyl and the adrenaline flowing through his body, all of which acted to further compromise an already compromised heart,” said Nelson.

The second-degree murder charge says Chauvin intentionally assaulted Floyd with his knee, which unintentionally caused Floyd’s death. The third-degree murder charge — which was added to the case in recent weeks — says Chauvin acted with a “depraved mind, without regard for human life.” And the second-degree manslaughter charge says Chauvin’s “culpable negligence” caused Floyd’s death.

The three charges against Chauvin are to be considered separately, so he could be convicted of all, some, or none of them.

If convicted, Minnesota’s sentencing guidelines recommend about 12.5 years in prison for each murder charge and about four years for the manslaughter charge.

Board president Joyce Wilkerson discusses goals and guardrails

A few months ago, the Board of Education adopted goals and guardrails, a five-year plan to raise student achievement in Philadelphia public schools.

Board President Joyce Wilkerson reflected on the decision to change how the School District of Philadelphia operates and what it means for the district moving forward.

Wilkerson was appointed to the School Reform Commission (SRC) in November 2016 and led the transition to the Board of Education in 2018.

“Over the last five years, the district has had more performance schools, we’ve reduced the number of low-performing schools, and we’ve increased the four-year graduation rate,” Wilkerson said.

“However, for nearly 20 years the district has been focused on system survival and we still have some attributes of that left. We have a school district that is underfunded and doesn’t have the facilities that we need.

“We still have a lot of work to do and it’s time for us to move from system survival to a focus on student success,” Wilkerson added.

An analysis of SRC activity showed that the commission just spent 10% of its time focusing on student achievement.

Under the goals and guardrails plan, the board will dedicate a significant percentage of its time to setting achievement goals in reading, math, and college and career readiness and will have substantial check-ins on those goals at every school board meeting.

The board, as the district’s governing body, will still be responsible for voting on contracts and conducting the business of the school system, but it will spend less time on operational matters and more on academics.

Wilkerson said the action meetings are now dedicated to progress monitoring, and the new structure will also evaluate the performance of School Superintendent William Hite.

The board started the new approach to governance in January.

“We have a five-year calendar at each meeting where we review one or two of the goals or guardrails and ask the superintendent very specific questions,” Wilkerson said. “We’re going to be monitoring publicly and doing self-assessment as the board.

“We have a budget that aligns resources with our vision and we’re going to make sure that all district initiatives align with our goals and guardrails.”

Hite will also begin to incorporate teachers in curriculum development, Wilkerson said.

“At a recent meeting, the superintendent talked about having teachers at the table with district leaders developing curriculum,” Wilkerson said. “He also talked about the need to evaluate each individual student through an assessment, so that kids coming in with a lot of challenges are getting the proper instruction that they need.

“Another thing that’s happening across the district is they’re doing benchmarks with students along the way, so teachers can figure out whether or not the kids are learning what they need to learn.”

On the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress, considered the nation’s report card, just 17% of district fourth-graders read at or above grade level, and 18% scored at or above grade level in math.

Sixteen school districts performed higher than Philadelphia in reading and 19 school districts performed higher in math.

The report also said that 17% of district eighth-graders read at or above reading level, and 16% scored at or above grave level in math.

Sixteen school districts performed higher than Philadelphia in reading and 16 school districts performed higher in math.

Wilkerson said the board wants the district to improve the percentage of third- to eighth-grade students who meet state benchmarks in English from 36%, its current level, to 65% and in math from 22% to 52% by 2026.

It will look at the numbers broken down by race, economic and special education status, and whether students are English language learners, and examine data frequently and in public to monitor progress.

“What we get monthly from the district are reports that break down how students are doing,” Wilkerson said. “We’re going to be specific about who’s performing, who’s struggling, and then asking why and what gaps exist.

“We know that in some of the struggling schools the kids have more needs, so we’re going to allocate more resources, drive down class sizes for the schools where students are struggling, and track the movement and see what happens.”

The guardrails, which are non-negotiable conditions needed in all schools to achieve academic goals, will focus on having safe and welcoming schools, offering co-curricular activities, partnering with parents and guardians, and dismantling racist practices that result in different outcomes for students.

“We’re looking at all policies and identifying areas that need to be changed,” Wilkerson said. “For example, we know that with special admit schools there are certain biases that need to be tackled.

“We expect to see more kids getting into Masterman and the district is doing things like identifying all children who are potentially eligible for Masterman, reaching out to them and encouraging them to apply and follow-up.”

Wilkerson said the board will also tackle issues in the district like discipline and restorative practices.

“We know that when we look at the data that Black males are suspended at a different rate for the same kind of conduct that would not prompt the district to suspend a white child,” Wilkerson said.

“We’re going to be tracking the data and when we see those things happening, we’re going to be calling it out, following up, and making sure that change happens.”

Wilkerson said that although the goals and guardrails are a five-year plan, she hopes the plan will be around long term.

“We know that in order for this vision to be successful, we must hold ourselves and the district accountable.”

Democratic City Committee snubs Krasner by declining to endorse him in district attorney primary

Philadelphia’s Democratic City Committee has snubbed District Attorney Larry Krasner by not endorsing the incumbent in the upcoming primary.

The city committee’s executive board decided to back neither Krasner nor his challenger, Carlos Vega, in the May 18 primary, according to KYW Newsradio.

Charles Peruto Jr. is running as the lone Republican in that party’s primary, yet he has vowed to drop out of the race if Vega prevails in the Democratic primary.

Bob Brady, the head of the city’s Democratic committee, did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.

Brandon Evans, Krasner’s campaign manager, said in an email the campaign was not surprised the Democratic committee’s executive board avoided endorsing either candidate. He noted Krasner won the 2017 primary without the committee’s endorsement.

Evans said Krasner’s campaign has received several other endorsements already, including from several city wards and unions; progressive groups, including the Working Families Party and Reclaim Philadelphia; and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

“Larry’s public endorsements will continue snowballing over the next months as Larry connects with his real base — voters — and various wards, organizations and community groups announce their support,” Evans said.

Vega said he was happy the Democratic committee decided to keep the primary open. 

"Philadelphians have lost confidence in Mr. Krasner’s leadership, and are ready for an experienced DA who can bring reform and keep our city safe," Vega said in a text message. 

The committee’s decision to not endorse a Democratic incumbent is rare but not unheard of.

The party committee declined to endorse then-incumbent Sheriff Jewell Williams in the 2019 primary, which he went on to lose. Williams was facing several allegations of sexual harassment.

The Democratic committee also didn’t endorse Donna Reed Miller in her 1999 primary for the District 8 City Council seat. Miller went on to win that primary and re-election in the general election.

Miller, the Democratic ward leader of the 59th Ward, said she believed some ward leaders may be hesitant to back Krasner due to his progressive policies and fraught relationship with the police union.

“I think a lot of it has to do with his relationship with the police,” Miller said.

John McNesby, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 (FOP), has sharply criticized Krasner for years over his policies. The FOP has endorsed Vega.

McNesby is publicly waging a campaign to unseat Krasner, which includes calling on his Republican union members to re-register as Democrats and vote against Krasner. Pennsylvania has closed primary elections, meaning only a voter registered with a political party can vote in that party’s primary.

Krasner is a progressive prosecutor who has put in place criminal justice reforms aimed at reducing the jail population and dismantling policies that have led to the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans and other people of color in Philadelphia.

Jay McCalla, a former city deputy managing director, said the Democratic committee’s non-endorsement of an incumbent was the “height of injustice,” putting Krasner’s re-election campaign in “big jeopardy.”

McCall said Krasner already faces significant challenges to his re-election bid.

The coronavirus pandemic has cut Krasner off from the traditional paths of connecting with African-American voters, including attending weekly church services and kaffeeklatsches, McCalla said. The police union’s efforts against Krasner’s campaign combined with an expected low voter turnout in the off-year election will hurt Krasner, too.

“[Krasner is] at a real outreach disadvantage when it comes to stirring the Black vote, McCalla said. “I wouldn’t put $10 on his chances of being re-elected, not at this point.”

Krasner will go without the perks that come with an endorsement from the Democratic committee, which include funding, support and staff.

McCalla suggested Krasner would need a robust media blitz to make up for not getting the party’s endorsement and other challenges in order to reach critical voting blocs in the city, including Black voters and white progressives.

“[Krasner’s] got the message for the African-American vote to stir a turnout that would swamp the FOP turnout, but he can’t deliver that message now given the environment and what appears to be an absence of big money in his pocket,” McCalla said.

Miller, the ward leader, was uncertain whether the party’s non-endorsement of an incumbent will hurt the party, noting her own electoral success without getting the party’s endorsement in 1999 for her district City Council race.

“They didn’t endorse me and I don’t think it hurt the party,” she said.

Democrats outnumber Republicans in Philadelphia by nearly 7-to-1. The winner of the Democratic primary typically goes on to win in the November general election.

Ban on renter evictions during COVID-19 pandemic is extended

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is extending a federal moratorium on evictions of tenants who have fallen behind on rent during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday moved to continue the pandemic-related protection, which had been scheduled to expire on Wednesday. The moratorium is now extended through the end of June.

The ban, initially put in place last year, provides protection for renters out of concern that having families lose their homes and move into shelters or share crowded conditions with relatives or friends during the pandemic would further spread the highly contagious virus, which has killed more than 545,000 people in the United States.

To be eligible for the housing protection, renters must earn $198,000 annually or less for couples filing jointly, or $99,000 for single filers; demonstrate that they’ve sought government help to pay the rent; declare that they can’t pay because of COVID-19 hardships; and affirm they are likely to become homeless if evicted.

In February, President Joe Biden extended a ban on housing foreclosures to June 30 to help homeowners struggling during the pandemic.

Housing advocates had generally expected the extension of the tenant eviction moratorium and had been lobbying the Biden administration, saying it was too early in the country’s economic recovery to let the ban lapse.

John Pollock, coordinator of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, said that the moratorium “is vital for ensuring there is enough time for Congress’s emergency rental assistance to reach the millions of renters in need who would otherwise be evicted.”

Pollack said current surveys show that 18.4% of all tenants owe back rent. That number also revealed significant racial disparity: The percentage of Black tenants behind on their rent was 32.9%.

But Pollock and other housing advocates were disappointed that Biden merely extended the ban without addressing several issues that put many tenants at risk of eviction.

“In Massachusetts, judges have green-lighted over 1,700 evictions under the federal eviction moratorium. While it is protecting some families, it’s clearly not protecting all,” said Denise Matthews-Turner, the interim executive director of City Life/Vida Urbana, a grassroots housing justice organization in Boston. “The extension is a good thing, but it’s disappointing that the moratorium wasn’t also strengthened to keep families from falling through the cracks, such as families with no-fault evictions or whose landlords won’t accept rent relief.”

Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, said she and others had pushed to make the ban’s protections automatic and universal. Currently, tenants have to actively take steps to invoke the ban’s protections, which can lead to exploitation of those who don’t know their rights or don’t understand the process.

Also, some jurisdictions have allowed landlords to initiate the eviction process in court, a tactic that scared many families into leaving rather than having the eviction proceedings, even unfinished ones, on their records.

“While the Biden administration is well aware of the shortcomings in the moratorium order that allow some evictions to proceed during the pandemic, the CDC director did not correct them,” Yentel said.

Instead, the CDC “simply extended President Trump’s original order, leaving the loopholes and flaws in place, a disappointing decision that will result in more harmful evictions during the pandemic,” she said.

Pollock said the moratorium should also include a provision ensuring tenants have a right to counsel, “so that they can effectively use rental assistance and fight the increasing wave of illegal evictions.”

Landlords in several states have sued to scrap the order, arguing it was causing them financial hardship and infringing on their property rights. They remain opposed to any extension, saying it does nothing to address the financial challenges facing renters and landlords.

There are at least six prominent lawsuits challenging the authority of the CDC ban. So far, three judges have sided with the ban and three have ruled against, with all cases currently going through appeals. One judge in Memphis declared the CDC order unenforceable in the entire Western District of Tennessee.

Chuck Fowke, chairman of the National Association of Home Builders, said he was “disappointed that the Administration is still pushing this poorly thought out and illegal policy.”

Fowke said in a statement that the government was embracing a short-term fix by “saddling landlords with the responsibility to provide free housing during this pandemic.”