The first days of testimony at the trial of a former Minneapolis police officer charged in George Floyd’s death were dominated by witnesses to his arrest and countless videos that forced them to relive the trauma of it all over again.
One man who shouted “You can’t win!” at Floyd as the Black man struggled with police, bowed his head and sobbed on the stand. The teenager who shot widely seen bystander video cried as she talked about her guilt over not being able to help Floyd. A firefighter trained as an EMT broke down as she described her frustration because police prevented her from acting to save Floyd’s life. The young cashier who reported that Floyd used a $20 counterfeit bill to buy cigarettes — prompting a call to police — recalled his guilt as he watched Floyd struggling to breathe.
Attorneys on both sides at the trial of former Officer Derek Chauvin face a delicate balance in questioning witnesses who have experienced such pain while trying to advance their cases. The testimony raises questions about how witnesses who have suffered trauma are treated when they participate in the criminal justice system.
New York Law School criminal law professor Kirk Burkhalter, a former detective who leads a program on police reform, said the bystander testimony has been a powerful reminder of how police misconduct is a betrayal to the entire community.
“These people have been walking around with this pain for a year, unbeknownst to us,” he said. “They were victims of a crime. We just cannot forget that. They were trying to do their civic duty and they were prevented from interceding in something that was just completely horrible.”
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