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Key witness offers proof of murder and manslaughter in Day 5 of Chauvin trial

Lt. Richard Zimmerman
Lt. Richard Zimmerman

A high-ranking police officer presented devastating testimony against Derek Chauvin on Friday as the first week of his murder and manslaughter trial came to a close.

Lt. Richard Zimmerman, the most senior officer in the Minneapolis Police Department with 40 years of law enforcement experience, told the jury that he has never in his long career been trained to kneel on a suspect’s neck.

“That would be deadly force…if your knee is on a person’s neck, that can kill them,” he said in response to prosecutors’ questions.  Zimmerman described Chauvin’s treatment of George Floyd as “totally unnecessary.”  He added, “Pulling him (Floyd) down to the ground face down, and putting your knee on a neck for that amount of time is just uncalled for.”

But Zimmerman’s condemnation of the defendant’s conduct during his encounter with Floyd on the day he died, May 25, 2020, didn’t stop there.  The totality of the police lieutenant’s testimony supported all three of the criminal charges against Chauvin – every single one of them.

On the top count of second-degree murder, prosecutors must prove that the accused committed an assault resulting in Floyd’s death.  It is often referred to as felony murder.  Under the statute, it is not necessary to prove that the defendant intended to kill Floyd.  The question for the jury is whether the officer intended to cause harm which constitutes assault.

In this regard, the testimony of Zimmerman established compelling evidence of an assault by Chauvin against Floyd.  In the lieutenant’s opinion, the defendant used excessive force.  He violated both training standards and department policy by kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than nine excruciating minutes.  Chauvin’s use of force was wildly disproportionate to any threat that the suspect posed.  Under the law, excessive force equals assault.

The knee compression on the neck should never have been used, said Zimmerman.  But when it was used it should have “absolutely” stopped once Floyd was handcuffed on the ground.  It must have been intentional, prosecutors will argue, because Chauvin knew by virtue of his mandatory training each and every year that such extreme force could cause serious bodily injury or even death.  Yet, he used the unsafe and potentially lethal tactic anyway.  And he never relented until Floyd was dead.

Zimmerman’s testimony also offered a shocking level of depravity by Chauvin.  Why is this important?  It is an essential element of proof on the charge of third degree murder, which requires a showing of “depraved indifference to human life” under Minnesota’s statute.

Here, Chauvin had an affirmative duty to ensure the safety and well-being of Floyd when he took him into custody.  “Once you secure a person you need to get them out of the prone position as soon as possible because it restricts their breathing,” Zimmerman explained to the jury.  But the defendant didn’t do that.  You can see it plainly on the videos.  He never turned Floyd on his side or helped him into a seated position so that he could get life-sustaining air into his lungs.

Digital recordings show that Chauvin ignored Floyd’s frantic complaints that he couldn’t breathe and offered no assistance.  The defendant never rendered medical aid when it became obvious that the suspect had lapsed into unconsciousness and had stopped breathing.  “An officer always needs to provide immediate medical care when a person in your custody exhibits physical distress,” said Zimmerman.  This must be done before medical responders arrive at the scene.

Yet, Chauvin didn’t lift a finger to help Floyd.  He was dead by the time paramedics were able to get to him.  This is persuasive evidence of depraved indifference to human life.

The last criminal charge against the accused is manslaughter, which is a negligent or grossly careless act that creates an unreasonable risk of harm resulting in death.  Zimmerman’s damning testimony about Chauvin’s excessive use of force and his utter lack of concern for Floyd’s failing condition surely satisfies the legal requirements for culpable negligence.  Floyd was slowly dying, but the defendant continued to press his knee on the back of the man who was prone on the ground with his hands cuffed behind his back.

On cross-examination the defense tried to suggest that since Zimmerman is a senior official who wears a suit and not a uniform, he’s not a regular “beat cop.”  He’s not working the streets on a daily basis and facing dangerous threats and “use of force” situations as frequently as Chauvin.  In other words, how could he really know what it’s like in “the jungle,” as pop culture tends to call it?  It was a legitimate point, but it doesn’t mean that Zimmerman is not steeped in knowledge about the proper use of force that’s acceptable for any of the police officers he monitors and supervises in his department.

The testimony of Lt. Zimmerman was powerful not just because of the incriminating opinions he offered but also because he was, essentially, Chauvin’s boss.  This gave him added credibility.  The jury may well embrace Zimmerman’s testimony with greater weight because he represents an authority figure within the Minneapolis police department.  He is a cop who testified against one of his own –a colleague within the force.

Zimmerman had the courage to pierce the infamous “blue wall of silence.”  That will have enormous significance in the minds of these Minneapolis jurors.