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The trial of a former Minneapolis police officer turns on this question - can defense lawyers show that George Floyd's death was different than it seemed on video?


An officer's knee to Floyd's neck last year prompted nationwide demands to reckon with racism. At a murder trial, lawyers for ex-officer Derek Chauvin hope to show the facts are subtly different. They began to question whether drugs killed Floyd. But an expert, police surgeon Dr. Bill Smock, says Floyd's death was as it seemed. He has no doubt the cause was Chauvin's weight on Floyd's neck.


BILL SMOCK: Mr. Floyd died from positional asphyxia, which is a fancy way of saying he died because he had no oxygen left in his body.

INSKEEP: Where does that leave the defense?

MARTIN: Joining us again from Minneapolis, NPR's Cheryl Corley. Cheryl, good morning.


MARTIN: So we heard a clip there. Can you tell us more? I mean, what was the sentiment from medical experts who were on the stand yesterday?

CORLEY: Well, we had - one main witness was Dr. Martin Tobin. He's a well-known physician who studies the respiratory system. And prosecutors just asked him to review the medical records and videos tied to this case. And he said, in his opinion, that Floyd died from shallow breathing, that he just didn't have enough oxygen getting into his lungs and that damaged his brain and caused his heart to stop.

MARTIN: And did he make the connection? I mean, what did he say was the cause of the low oxygen levels?

CORLEY: Yeah. Well, he said that there were four main forces, and Derek Chauvin's knee on his neck was one of them, another knee on his back was like the second and then he said Floyd laying prone on his chest in the street and, finally, how officers pushed on the handcuffs that were on Floyd's wrists.


MARTIN TOBIN: Forcing his left wrist up into his chest, forcing it in tight against his chest, forcing it high up. And you have to keep in mind that the opposite side of this is the street. So he was being squashed between the two sides.

CORLEY: And Tobin explained many of the technical details he was talking about, including how oxygen makes its way into our bodies by using video and exhibits that he had created himself.

MARTIN: I mean, it's always hard to read the jury from a distance, but any sign of the effect that that testimony had on those folks?

CORLEY: Well, you know, according to the pool reporters who were in the courtroom, the jurors were just very engaged with Tobin. He spoke directly to them. It was kind of like he was in a classroom. He asked them to follow along, to put their hands on their necks or finger in the ear as he explained these concepts, and many of the jurors did. And that got to be really a bit much for defense attorney Eric Nelson, who objected. And Judge Peter Cahill stepped in.


PETER CAHILL: Members of the jury, the witness has asked you to do certain things. These are not required. You may do them. And he should phrase it more in terms of if you were to do that. And if you wish to do it, that is your choice.

MARTIN: So how did the defense respond to this medical testimony?

CORLEY: Well, Eric Nelson returned to his theory that it was drugs that affected Floyd's oxygen levels and caused his death. He asked Dr. Tobin to consider a hypothetical since an autopsy found fentanyl and methamphetamine in Floyd's body.


ERIC NELSON: Is it fair to say that you would expect a peak fentanyl respiratory depression within about five minutes?

TOBIN: Right. I mean, obviously, it would depend on how much of it was ingested.

CORLEY: And Tobin added, though, that it wasn't drugs but bodyweight on Floyd's neck and back that stopped that flow of oxygen to his brain and caused his death.

MARTIN: And quickly looking forward, who's testifying today?

CORLEY: Well, we think - Dr. Andrew Baker, the medical examiner for the county, he has called Floyd's death a homicide. And we expect to hear from him.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Cheryl Corley in Minneapolis, thank you so much.

CORLEY: You're welcome.


MARTIN: OK. Northern Ireland, where political violence took generations to settle, is suddenly unsettled again.

INSKEEP: Protesters clashed with police in Belfast last night. Those protesters have been throwing Molotov cocktails for days. Northern Ireland, you will recall, is part of the U.K. and politically separate from Ireland itself. Imperial Britain had to concede Ireland's independence more than a century ago but held on to that one portion. And the divide between a mostly Catholic nation and a mostly Protestant enclave drove decades of violence. A peace deal in the '90s assured that mostly Protestant Northern Ireland would stay in the U.K., but a new border as part of the Brexit deal has thrown its future into question.

MARTIN: A lot of history to take into account here. We've got NPR's Frank Langfitt, who is in West Belfast. Frank, just describe what's going on around you and where you are.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Yeah. Rachel, I'm sitting in front of one of the peace walls. These things were built during the Troubles back in the '60s, '70s and '80s to divide the Protestant and Catholic communities. But what I'm looking at right now says - there's a mural up that says there was never a good war or a bad peace. But just right now, like 10 minutes ago, there were guys, workers, actually trying to fix the peace wall because a couple of nights ago, someone rammed it with a van on fire, which is pretty emblematic of kind of the conflict we're seeing right now in the streets of Belfast.

MARTIN: I know it's complicated, but explain what's behind this right now.

LANGFITT: Yeah, several factors, exactly what Steve was saying in the - when he was just talking a moment ago. Because of Brexit and leaving the European Union, the United Kingdom has had to create this new internal customs border that separates Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K. And it's funny. That would sound very technical, but if you're from a loyalist perspective, somebody here who wants to be a part of the United Kingdom, they feel like they're really being cut out and that they're being left on their own. And this has really upset people here. And the longer term concern is one day there could be a vote here to stay in the U.K. or to go to part of - become part of the, you know, the Irish Republic to the south. And unionist loyalists here are concerned that they would lose that vote. So more and more, they're just feeling very anxious.

MARTIN: I understand there are a lot of young people involved in these riots, right? What does that portend?

LANGFITT: It's really unsettling. I was out last night right near where I am at the moment, and there were a lot of young people with hoodies and some of them looking to be fairly young teens. And it was almost like seeing those old newsreels from the '70s and the '80s, only they're updated to 2021, which I didn't think I'd actually see covering Belfast as I have for the last few years. Naomi Long, she's leading the centrist Alliance Party here. She was in the Parliament in Northern Ireland yesterday. And this is what she said about how she was taking it all in.


NAOMI LONG: I watched adults old enough to be their parents, old enough to know better, standing by cheering and goading and encouraging young people on as they wreaked havoc in their own community.

MARTIN: Wow. So, I mean, what can political leaders do in this moment to quell that unrest?

LANGFITT: Well, they're trying to basically tell people to back off and calm down. But the fundamental problems, which is the future of Northern Ireland, it's hard to resolve because there is this border in the Irish Sea. There's also frustration over the way Sinn Fein, the former - which used to represent the Irish Republican Army politically, how they seem to have gotten away with some things with coronavirus at a funeral last year. So those tensions are long lasting. And we're just going have to see what happens tonight. More violence is expected.

MARTIN: NPR's Frank Langfitt reporting from West Belfast. Thank you, Frank.

LANGFITT: Great to talk, Rachel.


MARTIN: All right. So after the two mass shootings, one in Atlanta, one in Boulder, President Biden announced new executive action on guns. In Colorado, though, there's still some opposition against any stricter measures.

INSKEEP: Immediately after the mass shooting in a Boulder grocery store, some Democrats in Colorado said they wanted to pass the most restrictive firearm laws they could, including a statewide assault-style weapons ban. But talks to do that are stalling.

MARTIN: Bente Birkeland of Colorado Public Radio is here with us to talk more. Bente, thanks for being here.


MARTIN: So just explain exactly what kinds of changes - what were the range of changes floated after the shooting at the Boulder store?

BIRKELAND: Well, following the mass shooting at the King Soopers grocery store, some Democrats at the state Capitol really began talking about pushing forward with a statewide assault-style weapons ban. Colorado's government is controlled by Democrats, like you said, but there's this strong outdoor gun culture here. I spoke with a number of politically engaged gun owners across the state. They all told me they are against a potential assault weapons ban. Here's Mario Acevedo. He lives in Denver. He's a novelist and a Democratic voter.

MARIO ACEVEDO: When Colorado passed a universal background check and the high-capacity magazine ban, that was done under the premise that it was going to prevent mass shootings. The state passed the red flag, the ERPO, law. That, again, was done on the premise of preventing mass shootings, and it didn't.

BIRKELAND: Advocates for tougher gun laws say gun prevention policies do save lives and that it takes a comprehensive approach to chip away at the problem. In Colorado, most gun deaths are due to suicides, and it can be difficult to quantify the exact number of deaths that didn't happen.

MARTIN: But interesting in that clip - so not all Democratic voters are of one mind on gun control. What about Democratic lawmakers in the state?

BIRKELAND: Well, initially, support came from some Democrats in high positions, and it looked like this could gain momentum. But now a statewide assault-style weapons ban seems less likely. I spoke with State Representative Tom Sullivan. He's a Democrat whose son was killed in the Aurora movie theater shooting in 2012. In many ways, he's been the public face of this debate in Colorado. But he told me right now, he does not think this is the best path forward. He says he wants to focus on policies he believes would be more effective at preventing gun violence.

TOM SULLIVAN: So you can ban all you want, and they work around it, you know, with printers at home or ordering piece by piece that has no serial number on it. And they manufacture, you know, something that could be deemed as an assault weapon.

BIRKELAND: Colorado Public Radio spoke with Democratic Governor Jared Polis the previous afternoon, and he also said he did not want to focus energy on the type of firearm that was used in the Boulder mass shooting.

MARTIN: So I just want to note what Sullivan said there earlier about the workarounds, that you can just order these kits. We should acknowledge that President Biden just announced that he wants to put a ban on those kinds of do-it-yourself weapons kits. So there is action coming at the federal level. I mean, let's talk about other measures that Democrats might be pushing instead of this all-out assault weapons ban.

BIRKELAND: Right. There's less controversial ideas being put forward like requirements to safely store firearms.

MARTIN: All right. Colorado Public Radio's Bente Birkeland. We'll talk more with you about this. Thank you.

BIRKELAND: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.