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News Brief: Derek Chauvin Trial, SolarWinds Hack, Ethiopian Conflict

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Derek Chauvin's fate is now in the hands of the jury.

NOEL KING, HOST:

That's right. They'll start deliberating again this morning after four hours of deliberations yesterday. They have a lot of video evidence and expert testimony to consider, as well as the closing arguments from both the prosecution and the defense. Attorney Jerry Blackwell, speaking for the prosecution, left the jurors with this.

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JERRY BLACKWELL: You were told that Mr. Floyd died because his heart was too big. And the truth of the matter is that the reason George Floyd is dead is because Mr. Chauvin's heart was too small.

MARTIN: With us now, NPR's Cheryl Corley. She's been following the case in Minneapolis. Cheryl, thanks for being here.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Oh, of course.

MARTIN: This jury has seen an awful lot over the course of this trial. They've seen harrowing video. They've heard from medical experts, police officers, witnesses who were there. How did the prosecution tie all of this together?

CORLEY: Yeah. Well, prosecutor Steve Schleicher began his closing arguments by first talking about George Floyd - when and where he was born, his relationship to his family. He told them, the jury, that this was not a trial, though, about George Floyd, that instead this was a case where police were called about a $20 bill. And he said what was needed at that time was both some compassion and some oxygen for a man on the ground begging for his life. And the jurors should really believe what they saw in the videos. But Schleicher said the most difficult thing for the jurors may be setting aside any notions or ideas they may have about police officers committing a crime.

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STEVEN SCHLEICHER: Make no mistake. This is not a prosecution of the police. It is a prosecution of the defendant. And there's nothing worse for good police than a bad police who doesn't follow the rules, who doesn't follow procedure, who doesn't follow training.

MARTIN: So that was the prosecution's final word. What about the defense? How did attorney Eric Nelson try to sum all this up?

CORLEY: Well, Nelson presented closing remarks for about 2 1/2 hours, and he talked about what steps a reasonable officer would have taken as he or she considered the entire incident that had occurred with George Floyd. Now, prosecutors often said that Chauvin had his knee on Floyd's neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds. But Nelson said before that, there was nearly 17 minutes of struggle between Floyd and officers as police tried to get him into a squad car. And Nelson said a reasonable police officer should take all of that into account and that under those circumstances that Derek Chauvin did follow policy. And he argued, as he had throughout this trial, that it was George Floyd's drug use and heart conditions that were at play.

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ERIC NELSON: And the failure of the state's experts to acknowledge any possibility at all that any of these other factors in any way contributed to Mr. Floyd's death defies medical science, and it defies common sense and reason.

CORLEY: During his rebuttal, prosecutor Jerry Blackwell talked about common sense, too. He told the jurors that after hours of discussion that it wasn't complicated when it came to deciding excessive use of force and what actually caused George Floyd's death.

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BLACKWELL: And the fact that it's 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. That's how simple it was - get off of him - common sense.

CORLEY: That 9-year-old being one of the minors who was a bystander and testified during the trial.

MARTIN: So the jury is now deliberating. But Eric Nelson, the defense attorney, asked for a mistrial yesterday, didn't he? Can you explain that?

CORLEY: Yeah. He said throughout the trial the jury should have been sequestered. And he said that widespread media coverage and scrutiny of the case could taint the jury. He also pointed to comments made by Congresswoman Maxine Waters this past weekend that he said was an example of that. The judge, however, denied the request for mistrial.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Cheryl Corley in Minneapolis. Thank you, Cheryl.

CORLEY: You're welcome.

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MARTIN: All right. So the Biden administration imposed new sanctions on Russia last week, and here's what's interesting. They said one of the reasons was the SolarWinds hack.

KING: Yeah. This was one of the boldest cyber hacks in recent memory. Hackers broke into the systems of Fortune 500 companies and federal government agencies. And NPR has been piecing together how that happened.

MARTIN: NPR in the form of Dina Temple-Raston and her team, who have spent the last several months digging into the story. She joins us now. Hey, Dina.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: Who exactly was behind this hack, and how did they do it?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the way they did is they got into a routine software update, like those ones you get on your phone and your computer all the time. And they piggybacked on that to sneak into a bunch of these companies and government networks. And these weren't just any companies. They snuck into Microsoft, Intel, Cisco, the Treasury, the Pentagon, just to name a few. And the White House has come out and said that this was Russian intelligence, the SVR, a group known as Cozy Bear.

MARTIN: So do we know exactly what they did when they were inhabiting these systems?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, we have some idea. We know that they were reading emails, which actually has a lot of actionable information in them. They were reading the emails of the head of DHS, of Treasury, and you can imagine what they could do with that information later. And that's - the fear is that that's only the beginning, that the hackers were dropping in back doors and other things that would allow them into various networks, particularly government networks, sometime in the future.

MARTIN: So this seems like a very big deal. The White House has put these sanctions on Russia. But, I mean, is that sufficient? What else are they going to do?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the White House has said that they're responding in both seen and unseen ways. So there are these sanctions. And we also expect there's going to be some sort of reprisal in cyberspace, like a hack back. But we don't know what that is and we probably won't know until long after it's over what exactly the U.S. did in response.

MARTIN: I mean, seen and unseen measures - that sounds ominous, perhaps effective, but is it actually deterring the Russians from cyberattacks against the U.S.?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, that's an interesting question. We talked to Alex Stamos, who runs the Internet Observatory at Stanford University, and he said that the Russians are focused on cyber because, frankly, it's relatively easy and inexpensive to go toe to toe with the U.S. in cyberspace. Take a listen.

ALEX STAMOS: And so if you're the Russians and you have one-tenth of the people and much less than one-tenth of the budget to do your intelligence collection, this is the kind of thing you're going to focus on. These kinds of attacks that give you a huge amplifier of a relatively small amount of effort can get you a pretty decent amount of espionage.

MARTIN: Cyberattacks - you get a lot of bang for your buck, in other words. What does all this say, Dina, about how the Biden administration is going to deal with Russia and how cyber fits into that relationship?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, we know that they're willing to call out Russia when it does something. And I think we're going to be seeing more evidence of that in the coming days. But that's already different than what came before. Not just former President Trump, President Obama didn't want to call out Russia publicly ahead of the 2016 elections either. So this is new, and I think we're going to see some developments in this area.

MARTIN: Really interesting. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston, correspondent with NPR's Investigations unit. Dina, thank you.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

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MARTIN: All right. In Ethiopia, there's been months of fighting between members of rival ethnic groups, and it has resulted in a massive humanitarian crisis.

KING: This is a complex conflict. Ethiopia's prime minister began a military offensive in the northern part of the country last November. He accused political leaders in the north of orchestrating an attack on a government military base. Now, because of intense fighting, it's been very difficult to reach the northwestern part of the country.

MARTIN: NPR's Eyder Peralta has managed to do it. He is in the region of Tigray, the scene of some of the most intense fighting. And we should say the Internet has been off there for six months, so it's been really difficult to get any reporting from there. So it's a big deal. We're getting a rare view of this conflict from Eyder. Thank you for being here, Eyder. I want to hear what you are seeing and hearing, but we do need some context. I think that helps. The fighting first broke out in November. Explain who is doing the fighting and why.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: So this was a fight between Ethiopia's new government and the old government, and it was a power struggle. But just three weeks into the conflict, the government claimed victory. And more recently, Ethiopia said that Eritrean troops that had come in at the beginning of the war would withdraw. But the fighting is still going on. In fact, yesterday, we heard heavy artillery fire in a town northwest of where I am. I'm in Mekelle, the capital city. And not only that, but the Eritrean military is still here. We have seen them, and our reporting indicates that they are still fighting in this war. This conflict is now fully a guerrilla war. It's a conflict that has become ethnic in nature. And similar things are actually happening across Ethiopia between different armed groups. And the bottom line is that this country, which has struggled for centuries to stay united, it is being torn apart by fighting along ethnic lines.

MARTIN: So you've been traveling through the region. Who have you talked to? What have you seen?

PERALTA: It's a lot of human suffering. We don't know what the death toll is, but it's very likely in the tens of thousands. I've been asking everyone I meet if they have lost someone and almost without fail, they say, yes, my uncle, my mom, my grandma, my cousin. We visited a town called Goda. The people there told us that Eritrean troops gathered the men from the village to help them loot a factory. They loaded cement and other goods for days, and then the people there said that they were executed. We walked to one of the graves with parents where 19 people were buried. And as these dents in the earth, as we started seeing them, they were overcome with grief. One of the parents said, I cannot stand this pain. My stomach hurts - my son, my son. Let's listen to that moment.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: So the bodies are buried on a small ravine just where they were killed. And in between the bushes, there's dozens of bullets. What the family members are saying is that after they were killed, the bodies were left here for 20 days, and they had to beg the soldiers to come and let them bury their loved ones.

LEDIMA: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTIN: Eyder, that's just very hard to hear, that grief.

PERALTA: Yeah. And that - you're hearing Ledima, who lost her son. And what she says is there was no fighting when her son was killed. He was doing as the Eritrean soldiers asked, and they still shot him anyway.

MARTIN: You have reported on so many conflicts, Eyder. Is there something in particular that struck you about this one?

PERALTA: Yeah. I mean, I think this is one of the hardest reporting assignments I've ever done. I've seen homes burned, businesses stripped to the bone. I mean, troops have taken drywall and light fixtures. I was at the hospital here in Mekelle a few days ago when the wards - they're overflowing with people. And I could smell flesh. I saw an old lady who had been shot in the leg. I saw one boy who had survived a bombing, and he was all bandaged. And he looked at me straight in the eye like he wanted to say something, but he can't talk anymore. One little girl who was 11, she was trying to help one of her friends who was shot by troops, and then soldiers fired at her, and half her face was gone. And then there's the rape. Yesterday, I met a 19-year-old who says she was gang raped by five Eritrean soldiers. And I met a 65-year-old woman who told me that she was raped by an Ethiopian soldier. And the thing she kept saying is that she was a religious woman and that maybe this was a curse from God. And I told her, look, this isn't your fault. And she just kept shaking her head, and she said that she can't sleep anymore, that she can't eat anymore. And right now, she says she's just waiting to die.

MARTIN: Is there any international aid coming in to help these people, Eyder, or efforts to end this?

PERALTA: So there is some aid coming in. But everyone I talked to, government officials, NGO people, say that it's not enough. And many roads are still inaccessible because of the fighting. As for peace, it seems really far away. All sides are entrenched. And I spoke to some rebels yesterday, and they say that this has now become a war for independence. So all signs say that the fighting will continue for the foreseeable future.

MARTIN: NPR's Eyder Peralta in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. Thank you, Eyder.

PERALTA: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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