Editor’s note: This article has been updated.
Former Officer Derek Chauvin’s lawyer suggested Tuesday that George Floyd may have suffered from “excited delirium” — or what a witness described as a potentially lethal state of agitation and even superhuman strength that can be triggered by drug use, heart disease or mental problems.
Defense attorney Eric Nelson — seeking to plant doubt in jurors’ minds that Floyd died because of Chauvin’s knee on his neck for 9 ½ minutes — called to the stand Nicole Mackenzie, a Minneapolis police training officer, to expound on the condition.
While Floyd was pinned to the ground, a relatively new officer at the scene had mentioned that the 46-year-old Black man might be suffering from excited delirium.
Mackenzie testified that incoming officers are told how to recognize the signs of excited delirium: Suspects may be incoherent, exhibit extraordinary strength, be sweaty or suffering from abnormally low body temperature, or seem like they suddenly snapped. Officers are told that cardiovascular disease, illegal drug use or mental problems can trigger excited delirium, she said.
She said officers are also trained to put a suspect in a recovery position and to call paramedics, because a person can rapidly go into cardiac arrest.
Chauvin’s lawyer also elicited testimony Tuesday from another witness that Floyd panicked and cried over and over, “Please, please, don’t kill me!” when officers first approached his SUV at gunpoint on the day of his death. And the defense attorney brought out a 2019 arrest in which Floyd suffered from dangerously high blood pressure and confessed to heavy use of opioids.
Chauvin, a 45-year-old white man, is on trial on charges of murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death last May after his arrest on suspicion of passing a counterfeit $20 at a neighborhood market.
Nelson has argued that Floyd died because of his illegal drug use and underlying health problems, including high blood pressure and heart disease. Fentanyl and methamphetamine were discovered in his system.
Mackenzie testified that she provides training on excited delirium only to new recruits. And Judge Peter Cahill cautioned jurors that there is no evidence that Chauvin had the training.
On cross-examination by prosecutors, Mackenzie said officers are obligated to perform CPR when someone’s pulse stops or the person becomes nonresponsive. She also said she would defer to an emergency room doctor in diagnosing excited delirium.
An expert in forensic medicine previously dismissed Nelson’s excited-delirium suggestion during the prosecution’s case. Dr. Bill Smock, a police surgeon for the Louisville, Kentucky, department, said Floyd met none of the 10 criteria developed by the American College of Emergency Physicians.
The defense opened its case Tuesday after the prosecution rested following 11 days of testimony and a mountain of video evidence.
Nelson’s first witnesses, a now-retired Minneapolis police officer and paramedic, testified about a May 6, 2019, incident in which Floyd was arrested. That was a year before his fatal encounter with Chauvin.
Former Officer Scott Creighton said he drew his gun and pulled Floyd from a car after Floyd did not comply with orders to show his hands. Nelson twice asked questions aimed at getting the jury thinking about Floyd swallowing drugs, but Creighton said he did not see Floyd take anything.
Another witness who responded to that call, now-retired paramedic Michelle Moseng, testified that Floyd told her he had been taking multiple opioids about every 20 minutes.
“I asked him why and he said it was because he was addicted,” said Moseng, who described Floyd’s behavior as “elevated and agitated” before the judge struck that remark from the record.
Moseng also said she recommended taking Floyd to the hospital based on his high blood pressure, which she measured at 216 over 160.
On cross-examination, prosecutor Erin Eldridge got Moseng to testify that Floyd’s respiratory output, pulse, heart rate, EKG and heart rhythms were normal. Eldridge said Floyd was taken to the hospital and released two hours later.
Medical experts for the prosecution testified previously that Floyd died of lack of oxygen because his breathing was constricted as police held him down on his stomach, his hands cuffed behind his back, with Chauvin’s knee on his neck.
The prosecution experts rejected the notion that Floyd’s drug use or underlying health problems caused his death. In fact, a cardiology expert on Monday said that Floyd appeared to have “an exceptionally strong heart.”
Another defense witness Tuesday was Shawanda Hill, who was in the SUV with Floyd before his ill-fated encounter with Chauvin. She said that Floyd fell asleep at some point and seemed startled when he realized police were there.
When he saw an officer at the window with a gun, Floyd “instantly grabbed the wheel and he was like, ‘Please, please, don’t kill me. Please, please, don’t shoot me. Don’t shoot me. What did I do? Just tell me what I did. Please, don’t kill. Please, don’t shoot me,'” Hill testified.
Nelson also sought to bolster previous suggestions that the officers’ actions were influenced by what they perceived as hostile bystanders shouting at Chauvin to get off Floyd’s neck.
Minneapolis Park Police Officer Peter Chang, who helped at the scene that day, testified that he saw a “crowd” growing across the street that “was becoming more loud and aggressive, a lot of yelling across the street.”
“Did that cause you any concern?” asked Nelson, who played footage from Chang’s body camera in which bystanders can be heard yelling and becoming increasingly frantic.
“Concern for the officers’ safety, yes,” Chang replied.
Under cross-examination from the prosecution, Chang said he assumed the officers were OK because he knew there were four of them and they never radioed for help.
Nelson hasn’t said whether Chauvin will take the stand. Testifying could open him up to devastating cross-examination but could also give the jury the opportunity to see any remorse or sympathy on the officer’s part.