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Defense attorney Eric Nelson sits beside former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin during his trial for second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on March 29, 2021, as a video exhibit shows footage of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd in this courtroom sketch from a video feed of the proceedings.

JANE ROSENBERG/Reuters

Choking up in the courtroom at the trial of Derek Chauvin, Darnella Frazier – the teenager whose video of George Floyd’s death stunned her country – told of seeing a man under the knee of a policeman “terrified, scared, begging for his life.”

She and others implored Mr. Chauvin to stop. But he “just stared at us … He had like this cold look, heartless. He didn’t care.”

The moment highlighted the early testimony at the landmark trial, one fraught with consequence for racial stability (or lack thereof) in the United States. If there isn’t a guilty verdict, it will be seen as conclusive evidence that Black lives don’t matter. The country will explode.

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Testimony for the prosecution thus far has been graphic, incriminating, convincing. The nine-minute video of Mr. Chauvin’s knee pressed against George Floyd’s neck has been played and, in part, replayed. It looks like a slow-motion asphyxiation. It is wrenching.

Eric Nelson, the attorney for Mr. Chauvin, is trying to persuade the jury that Mr. Floyd’s poor heart condition, in combination with toxic drugs in his system, caused his death. It’s as if to say the weight on his neck as he was begging to be allowed to breathe was not a prime factor.

Legal experts have said that the defendant is up against prohibitive odds in this case. The verdict seems obvious: Up to 40 years in prison for second-degree murder, the most serious of the charges he faces

It seems obvious, at least, until one recalls the not-guilty verdicts for four police officers on assault charges in the case of Rodney King, a Black man beaten up on camera by white police in Los Angeles in 1991. Widespread riots, which took the lives of more than 50 people, followed.

It seems obvious until one recalls the 2013 acquittal of neighbourhood watch co-ordinator George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Black teen Trayvon Martin the year before in Florida. That also triggered nationwide racial tumult.

In a judicial system that allowed O.J. Simpson to go free in 1995, nothing is certain.

The 18-year-old Ms. Frazier undoubtedly struck a chord with Black Americans when she testified that “when I look at George Floyd, I look at my dad. I look at my brothers, my cousins, my uncles …. It could have been one of them.”

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Of the 14 jurors, eight are white, four are Black, and two are of mixed race. Mr. Nelson wants them to believe that his client was only acting in keeping with what officers were trained to do in such circumstances.

He’s trying to make the case that Mr. Chauvin was distracted by bystanders who posed a threat to him and the other policemen. “They’re screaming at them,” he said, “causing the officers to divert their attention from the care of Mr. Floyd to the threat that was growing in front of them.”

But on the video, Mr. Chauvin looks calm, stone-faced. He had a hand in his pocket. Mr. Floyd was in handcuffs. One bystander was Donald Williams, a man with training in mixed martial arts. He testified that he saw Mr. Chauvin manoeuvre his knee in a “shimmy,” a move that cuts off the air passage. Mr. Williams was one of three eyewitnesses who called 911, contacting the police to stop what police officers were doing.

Also making a 911 call was Genevieve Hansen, 27, a Minneapolis firefighter and emergency medical technician. She was off-duty when she came upon the scene and was alarmed to the point that she yelled for the officers to take Mr. Floyd’s pulse. She testified it was obvious he was being killed and that she felt “desperate” to save his life.

In the courtroom, the seats for Mr. Chauvin’s family were empty. He appeared emotionless. While viewed with contempt by most Americans, he does have some support; ethno-fascists on the far right are in his corner. The comment boards of Fox News show many to be of the view that a drug overdose was the prime cause of Mr. Floyd’s death. One of his defenders argued that since Mr. Chauvin obviously knew he was surrounded by witnesses and being recorded on video, he couldn’t possibly have been so stupid as to deliberately kill Mr. Floyd.

Medical experts will be testifying. If the defence can establish reasonable doubt as whether the knee pressure was the cause of Mr. Floyd’s death, legal authorities believe that Derek Chauvin has a chance.

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Given that the sustained knee pressure made him at least complicit, it’s a long shot. So were the cases of Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, and others.

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