The murder trial of Derek Chauvin, the former police officer whose alleged killing of George Floyd last year prompted a wave of Black Lives Matter protests, got fully under way with opening arguments in Minneapolis on Monday.
Chauvin, 45, has denied charges of second- and third-degree murder and manslaughter over the death of the 46-year-old Black man after he was detained on suspicion of passing a counterfeit $20 bill last May.
Central to the prosecution case is a nearly nine-minute bystander video of the police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck while he is handcuffed and as two other officers keep him pinned to the ground. Floyd is heard to say “I can’t breathe” and “I’m about to die”.
The video shocked many Americans and led to some of the biggest protests against racial injustice since the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
In Minneapolis, anger spilled out from largely peaceful protests into violence with the looting and torching of a police station and shops in the south of the city.
The authorities to plan an increased police and national guard presence on the streets as the trial progresses.
Civil rights attorney and commentator Areva Martin told the Guardian: “The family is seeking justice, the public is seeking accountability.”
She added: “The world is waiting to see if the US will be courageous enough to stand up to a system that has a history of violating the rights of African Americans and, rather than protecting those lives, has actually destroyed them.”
The prosecution and defence are expected to focus on the cause of Floyd’s death and Chauvin’s reasoning.
An autopsy by the Hennepin county medical examiner’s office ruled Floyd’s death a homicide because he suffered from heart failure brought on by “law enforcement subdual, restraint and neck compression”.
Chauvin’s defence is expected to focus on the examination’s finding that Floyd had heart disease and there was evidence of “fentanyl intoxication” and “recent methamphetamine use”.
The prosecution, led by Minnesota’s attorney general, Keith Ellison, is expected to allege that Chauvin had a long history of excessive force including kneeling on people during his 20-year police career. He was fired and arrested after Floyd’s death.
The defence has said Chauvin was following police training and had no intent to harm Floyd.
A vigil was held on Sunday night at the spot where Floyd was killed, a junction in southern Minneapolis now known as George Floyd Square.
Mileesha Smith, a community member who looks after the space marked with barricades, murals and tributes, said Floyd was part of a long history of police-involved deaths not just in the US but in that exact neighbourhood, with little justice forthcoming.
“George Floyd wasn’t the first person to be killed by police on this block, but [in the past] media wasn’t the way that it is and a lot of it got swept under the rug … How do we prevent this from happening? That could be my son. I have two sons.”
Conviction on the most serious charge carries a maximum sentence of 40 years in prison.