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Murder case against ex-cop goes to jury

MINNEAPOLIS — The murder case against former Officer Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd went to the jury Monday in a city on edge against another round of unrest like the one that erupted last year over the harrowing video of Chauvin with his knee on the Black man's neck.

The jury of six white people and six people who are Black or multiracial began deliberating after nearly a full day of closing arguments in which prosecutors argued that Chauvin squeezed the life out of Floyd last May in a way that even a child knew was wrong.

The defense contended that the now-fired white officer acted reasonably and that the 46-year-old Floyd died of a heart condition and illegal drug use.

The jurors deliberated about four hours before retiring for the night to the hotel where they are being sequestered for the final phase of the trial. They were due to resume Tuesday morning.

After closing arguments were done, Judge Peter Cahill rejected a defense request for a mistrial based in part on comments from California Rep. Maxine Waters that protesters could get more confrontational if there is no guilty verdict.

The judge told Chauvin's attorney: “Congresswoman Waters may have given you something on appeal that may result in this whole trial being overturned.” He added: “I wish elected officials would stop talking about this case, especially in a manner that is disrespectful to the rule of law and to the judicial branch.”

Chauvin, 45, is charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, all of which require the jury to conclude that his actions were a “substantial causal factor” in Floyd’s death and that his use of force was unreasonable.

The most serious charge carries up to 40 years in prison.

“Use your common sense. Believe your eyes. What you saw, you saw,” prosecutor Steve Schleicher said in closing arguments, referring to the bystander video of Floyd pinned down on the pavement with Chauvin's knee on or close to his neck for up to 9 minutes, 29 seconds, as onlookers yelled at the officer to get off.

Chauvin attorney Eric Nelson countered by arguing that Chauvin did what any reasonable police officer would have done after finding himself in a “dynamic” and “fluid” situation involving a large man struggling with three officers.

As Nelson began speaking, Chauvin removed his COVID-19 mask in front of the jury for one of the very few times during the trial.

With the case drawing to a close, some stores were boarded up in Minneapolis. The courthouse was ringed with concrete barriers and razor wire, and National Guard members were on patrol. Floyd's death last spring set off protests in the city and across the U.S. that sometimes turned violent.

The city has also been on edge in recent days over the deadly police shooting of a 20-year-old Black man, Daunte Wright, in a nearby suburb on April 11.

A couple of hundred people rallied outside of the courthouse shortly after the jury got the case, lining up behind a banner reading, “Justice for George Floyd and all stolen lives. The world is watching.”

Prosecutor Jerry Blackwell had the final word Monday, offering the state's rebuttal argument. The prosecutor, who is Black, said the questions about the use of force and cause of death are “so simple that a child can understand it.”

“In fact, a child did understand it, when the 9-year-old girl said, ‘Get off of him,’” Blackwell said, referring to a young witness who objected to what she saw. "That’s how simple it was. `Get off of him.' Common sense.”

Under the law, police have certain latitude to use force, and their actions are supposed to be judged according to what a “reasonable officer” in the same situation would have done.

Nelson noted that officers who first went to the corner store where Floyd allegedly tried to pass a counterfeit $20 bill were struggling with Floyd when Chauvin arrived as backup. The defense attorney also noted that the first two officers on the scene were rookies and that police had been told that Floyd might be on drugs.

“A reasonable police officer understands the intensity of the struggle,” Nelson said, noting that Chauvin’s body camera and badge were knocked off his chest.

Nelson also showed the jury pictures of pills found in Floyd’s SUV and pill remnants discovered in the squad car. Fentanyl and methamphetamine were found in Floyd’s system.

The defense attorney said the failure of the prosecution to acknowledge that medical problems or drugs played a role “defies medical science and it defies common sense and reason.”

During the prosecution's argument, Schleicher replayed portions of the bystander video and other footage as he dismissed certain defense theories about Floyd's death as “nonsense." He said Chauvin killed Floyd by constricting his breathing.

Schleicher rejected the drug overdose argument, as well as the contention that police were distracted by hostile onlookers, that Floyd had “superhuman” strength from a state of agitation known as excited delirium, and that he suffered possible carbon monoxide poisoning from auto exhaust.

The prosecutor sarcastically referred to the idea that it was heart disease that killed Floyd as an “amazing coincidence.”

"Is that common sense or is that nonsense?” Schleicher asked the jury.

Blackwell, his fellow prosecutor, likewise rejected the defense theory that Floyd died because of an enlarged heart: “The truth of the matter is that the reason George Floyd is dead is because Mr. Chauvin’s heart was too small.”


Local
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Event to return, in new location
ArtSplash moving downtown in 2021

SIOUX CITY -- ArtSplash, the Sioux City Art Center's annual fundraising event, is moving downtown in 2021.

"We genuinely are very excited about this as much for the Art Center as for the greater downtown," Art Center Director Todd Behrens told the Sioux City Council Monday. "We think it's going to have a lot of ripple effects bringing something like this downtown."

The council approved a resolution Monday, as part of its consent agenda, for the temporary closure of some downtown streets for the art festival, which is slated to be held Labor Day weekend. 

The following streets will be closed from 8 a.m. Sept. 2 to 10 p.m. Sept. 5 due to the festival: Third Street, from Pierce Street to Nebraska Street; the eastern southbound lane of Pierce Street, from Third Street to Second Street; and the western northbound lane of Nebraska Street, from Third Street to Second Street, excluding all intersections.

After the 27th annual ArtSplash was canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a celebration of festivals past was held online. The previous seven festivals were held at Riverside Park. 

Watters

"I'm excited about the opportunity for ArtSplash to be downtown. I'm looking forward to that. I think that it could be a little bit of a situation. It's going to take some thinking outside of the box," Councilman Alex Watters said. "Any collaboration, anything we can do to get more people not only enjoying ArtSplash, but enjoying our restaurants, shops, anything downtown, I think it's going to be a win-win." 

Art Center Development Coordinator Erin Webber-Dreeszen told the council the Art Center has wanted to host the festival downtown for a long time. She said the Art Center has been working with Downtown Partners in advance of the festival. 

In other action

The council also voted unanimously Monday to approve construction documents for phase 2 of the Chris Larsen Park Riverfront Development Project.

Phase 2, which has a budget of $5 million, includes an interactive fountain amid seating walls and landscaping in Floyd Plaza, as well as overlooks, a yoga lawn and a shade structure.

Tim Hynds, Sioux City Journal 

Construction is shown along the Missouri River on Monday in Sioux City's Chris Larsen Park at Floyd Boulevard. The Sioux City Council voted Monday to approve construction documents for what will be called Floyd Plaza at the approximate site of the construction equipment. The plaza will include an interactive fountain and other features.

"We already see a lot of things going on down at the riverfront, but this is really going to add to it," said Mayor Pro Tem Dan Moore, who noted he is "really excited" about the three river overlooks. 

Both phases 1 and 2 of the project are expected to be completed by the end of 2022.


Crime-and-courts
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Trial to begin for man charged with killing mother at Morningside home

SIOUX CITY -- Just days after the one-year anniversary of Lisa Belk's death, her son will stand trial for murder.

Paul Belk, 31, of Beaufort, South Carolina, is accused of the April 14, 2020, stabbing death of Lisa Belk and also slashing his sister during a disturbance at a Morningside home. His trial on charges of first-degree murder, willful injury and possession of a controlled substance is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. Tuesday in Woodbury County District Court.

Paul Belk

Belk has waived his right to a jury trial and is proceeding with a bench trial before District Judge Jeffrey Neary, who will determine whether Belk is guilty or not guilty. The trial is expected to last four days.

According to court documents, Belk became upset with his sister and mother during a family gathering at 3811 Peters Ave., retrieved a knife from the kitchen and lunged at his mother three times with the knife, then slashed his then-28-year-old sister in the shoulder.

Lisa Belk, 55, was taken to MercyOne Medical Center, where she died of her injuries. The sister was treated for her injuries and released.

Public defender Andrew Munger has filed notice that Belk would use insanity, diminished responsibility and intoxication defenses.

In January, Neary ruled that Belk was mentally competent to stand trial. Though a psychiatrist who interviewed Belk for the defense determined Belk was not competent, Neary found that details from the doctor's report convinced him that Belk does understand the charges against him and the basics of court procedures.

Lisa Belk

A forensic psychologist who examined Belk for the prosecution said testing showed that Belk had been feigning aspects of his mental illness.

Munger will be assisted in Belk's defense by Joseph Reedy. Both work for the State Public Defender's office in Council Bluffs.

First Assistant Woodbury County Attorney Mark Campbell and Assistant Woodbury County Attorney James Loomis are the prosecutors.

If found guilty of first-degree murder, Belk would face a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole.

Belk's is the second murder trial in Woodbury County this year. A jury in March found Gary Dains Jr. guilty of voluntary manslaughter, rather than first-degree murder, for the beating death of a Sioux City man in his home. Dains awaits sentencing.


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