Minneapolis, US – They are not old enough to legally vote or get a driver’s licence in the United States. One had not even reached her 10th birthday and all but one were too young to have their identities revealed to the public in court.
But all were old enough to witness a man die in front of their own eyes.
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Of the 19 people who testified in the first week of the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, 10 were bystanders on the scene as Black American George Floyd died. And of those, four were teenagers and one was a nine-year-old girl, highlighting how the jury was asked to relive the incident through the eyes of young people.
Their testimony in the courtroom was often riveting, distressing and raw and could define their young lives for years to come.
For each, it was clear the trauma of bearing witness to Floyd’s death up close and having to relive in court was a trauma they now live with.
“Big tragedies like the death of George Floyd are built on top of one thousand little tragedies,” said Mark Osler, a former federal prosecutor who now teaches law at the University of St Thomas. “The trauma the witnesses are recounting is not just one big thing but a cascade of little things as well.”
There was the girl who was 17 at the time of Floyd’s death who was walking to Cup Foods to get some food when she saw the commotion, pulled out her cell phone, and shot the video of Chauvin with his knee on Floyd’s neck while he cried for help. The video immediately went global and set off worldwide protests.
In court, she testified, “I’ve stayed up apologising to George Floyd for not doing more.”
She was with her nine-year-old niece and sent her into the store because she did not want her to see “a man terrified, scared, begging for his life”. That nine-year-old also was called by the prosecution to testify, her voice at times halting and low but the simple clarity of a child’s words rang clear.
“I was sad and kind of mad,” she said in court when asked what she felt on that day seeing Floyd on the ground. “Because it felt like he was stopping his breathing and it was kind of like hurting him.”
Osler told Al Jazeera he was surprised prosecutors called a minor to testify.
“I think the government made a mistake calling a nine year old to testify about a really traumatic experience,” he said. “They could have made their case without doing that. The role of the government should be to protect people from trauma and they run the danger of re-traumatising a child in that way when it isn’t necessary. I think that was a mistake.”
Another 18-year-old girl witnessed the incident and told the court she felt hopeless.
“It was difficult because I felt like there wasn’t really anything that I could do as a bystander,” she testified. “I felt like I was failing him.”
And another, aged 17, who said in court she vividly remembers arriving at the scene hearing “George Floyd’s voice yelling out for his mom and saying he can’t breathe”.
They are among four witnesses that Judge Peter Cahill ordered to mute the audio feed while they identified themselves and to not broadcast video of their faces to shield their privacy because of their young age. Only audio of their testimony was provided by the court, at Cahill’s orders.
Another teenager, Christopher Martin, 19, testified in open court without his identity shielded. He was a cashier at Cup Foods and was working the counter in the tobacco section when Floyd handed him a $20 bill to pay for cigarettes. Martin testified he suspected the bill was counterfeit, but did not have any way to confirm it but took the money and pondered paying for the cigarettes himself to avoid any problems. (He said if the manager found out he accepted a fake bill, the money would be deducted from his next paycheque).
He testified he tried to do the right thing and eventually informed the store owner he suspected it was a fake bill. The owner told the staff to call the police. A few minutes later, Derek Chauvin and other officers arrived at the intersection of 38th and Chicago and the rest is history.
Martin testified he has deep regret for his role in the events.
“If I had just not taken the bill, this could have all been avoided,” he said.
A trial that for a group of teenagers and one nine-year-old, has exposed deep pain and left so many scared wondering how to come to grips with what they saw then and what they feel now.