Donald Williams, who witnessed the dying moments of 46-year-old Minneapolis man George Floyd, teared up on Tuesday while listening to the 911 call he made about the incident. If you don’t know recognize name, you might know his voice. As heard on widely seen video, he called the defendant, then-police officer Derek Chauvin, a “fucking bum” during the fateful events of May 25, 2020.
“Officer 987 killed a citizen in front of a Chicago [Avenue] store,” Williams said in the 911 audio, played in court Tuesday morning. “He just pretty much killed this guy that wasn’t resisting arrest. He had his knee on the dude’s neck the whole time. Officer 987. The men went and stopped breathing. He wasn’t resisting arrest or nothing. He was already in handcuffs. They pretty much just killed that dude. I don’t even know if he’s dead for sure, but he was not responsive when the ambulance came and got him.”
As the audio continued in court, Williams grabbed a tissue and wiped his eyes.
The witness was one of the bystanders calling out officers on May 25, 2020, as police arrested Floyd for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill. Prosecutor Jerry Blackwell said defendant Chauvin, 44, used excessive force in continuing to kneel on Floyd’s neck, even as the man became unresponsive and even after the ambulance arrived. Bystanders at the scene, including Williams, pointed out the victim’s deteriorating condition. The state acknowledged Floyd’s health problems and recent drug use, but asserted he would not have died were it not for Chauvin’s actions.
Williams’ testimony is also notable because of his experience in hand-to-hand combat, including chokeholds. He told the court he had been wrestling since Seventh grade, and took up mixed martial arts in his sophomore year of college. He had been in 10 amateur fights, and close to 20 professional fights, he said. Williams testified to being trained on chokeholds, and the structures of the neck that will lead to a choke.
The gist of the testimony is that Williams’ experience led him to be incredibly worried when, during a trip to the Cup Foods corner store, he came across Chauvin kneeling on a visibly and audibly distressed Floyd.
Williams testified that Chauvin used a “shimmy” motion to cinch in the choke tighter. Williams said that the only time the defendant looked at him was when Williams pointed out it was a “blood choke.” This technique attacks the side of the neck, cutting out the circulation of the arteries.
As clear from video of the incident, bystanders were outraged at what Chauvin was doing to Floyd. In the 911 audio, Williams apparently addressed Chauvin co-defendant Tou Thao, predicting the now-former officer would take his own life in two years.
The defense is attempting to turn this to their advantage. In opening statements, defense attorney Eric Nelson said the bystanders and others nearby caused officers to divert attention from Floyd to the “threat” in front of them.
He maintained this theme when cross-examining Williams. Nelson noted that the witness sarcastically called Chauvin a “tough guy,” a “real man,” “such a man,” and “bogus.” Williams used the word “bum” 13 times, according to the defense. He used the phrase “fucking bum,” and “fucking pussy ass bitch.”
Cross-examinations rarely end up in fireworks, but the vibe often gets awkward because of the inherently antagonistic approach to questioning. The Williams testimony is a case in point.
“Is that what you heard?” Williams often said, instead of just answering yes or no when Nelson asked Williams about the insults he uttered in the video of Floyd’s death.
The witness acknowledged that in an interview with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, he said he wanted to beat the “shit” out of the officers in the Floyd incident.
Williams testified that Thao put a hand on his chest.
Nelson asked if he remembered telling the officer, “I dare you to touch me like that. I swear I’ll slap the fuck out of both of you.”
“Yeah, I did,” Williams said. “I meant it.”
“So, again, sir,” said Nelson, “It’s fair to say that you grew angrier and angrier.”
“No, I grew professional and professional,” Williams said. “I stayed in my body. You can’t paint me out to be angry.”
Basically, he rendered his behavior as justified outrage. He maintained that he was in control of himself.
Nelson also worked to mitigate Williams’ wrestling and MMA experience. During cross-examination, the witness acknowledged he had never gone to a police academy to train officers in the use of chokeholds.
Williams also said he did not see any prior interaction between Floyd and the police, and that he did not know at the time that they had been interacting for 15 minutes. The defense maintains that Chauvin did what he was trained to do that day.
Thao and co-defendants J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane are set for a separate trial to begin in August.
Julie Rendelman, a Law&Crime analyst and criminal defense lawyer unaffiliated with the case, told us in an email that Chauvin’s defense is making a mistake by shifting blame onto the crowd of witnesses.
“I think any effort by the defense to somehow blame the crowds for his actions, that somehow their cries diverted his attention is a clear miscalculation on their part,” she wrote. “Quite frankly, if I was the prosecutor, I would argue that the crowd’s cries simply motivated Chauvin to act even more callously, to show the crowd: ‘I’m the boss. Nobody can tell me what to do.’ That photo seen around the world with Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck, hand in his pocket, looking at the crowd in what appears to be defiance, will not bode well for the defense.”
Nonetheless, a distraction defense may help the remaining three co-defendants.
“With that said, the defense attorneys for the other officers facing trial may be more successful in arguing that one or more of the officers (not Chauvin) was distracted by the crowds and that impacted some of their decision making,” Rendelman said.
It remains to be seen how jurors will receive Williams testimony and Nelson’s attempts to construe his behavior as a threat to police. Nonetheless, Rendelman and CNN legal analyst Elie Honig saw Williams as a compelling witness for the state.
“There are some witnesses, whether it be their charm, even just the way they smile, that immediately gets the jury on their side,” Rendelman wrote. “He is just that person. He came off as honest, showing raw emotion, a guy who was and is just trying to do the right thing.”
Honig, a former federal prosecutor, looked dimly on the beginning of Nelson’s cross-examination.
Future defense lawyers: don’t open your cross-examination of an important witness with long, winding questions about mixed martial arts before you get to any discernible, relevant point.
— Elie Honig (@eliehonig) March 30, 2021
“Sometimes as a prosecutor, a witness just shines on the stand in an understated way and resonates with the jury in a way you never expected,” Honig wrote early on in cross-examination. “Donald Williams is doing that now.”
[Screengrab via Law&Crime Network]
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