Actions of three officers present at George Floyd’s killing scrutinized in federal trial opening

By: - January 25, 2022 10:00 am

A car drives through George Floyd Square Wednesday, July 21, 2021. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer. Courtesy of the Minnesota Reformer.

Federal prosecutors in St. Paul said Monday that ex-Minneapolis police officers Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane had a lawful duty to step in and stop their superior officer, Derek Chauvin, when he knelt on George Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, eventually killing him.

Special Litigation Counsel Samantha Trepel of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in opening statements of the federal trial against the three former officers that the men ignored the “slow-motion killing” of Floyd and disregarded a key tenet of their training.

“In your custody is in your care – that is a fundamental principle of policing taught to Minneapolis police officers, including the defendants in this case,” Trepel said. “It means when an officer takes a person into their custody, those officers are responsible for keeping that person safe and protecting them.”

The former officers have all been charged with deprivation of rights under color of law.

Trepel made no distinction between the roles played by each of the three officers on Memorial Day 2020 when they encountered Floyd after a store clerk at Cup Foods called police to report Floyd had used a counterfeit bill.

Thao, 36, was in charge of crowd control, while Kueng, 28, and Lane, 38, were rookies just days into their first shifts as full-fledged officers.

They watched a “slow-motion killing,” and “stood by and chose to let it continue,” Trepel said, and “didn’t lift a finger.”

Trepel was the first of four attorneys who delivered opening statements in the civil rights trial, which comes just a month after Chauvin pleaded guilty to federal charges against him in Floyd’s murder and in a separate excessive force incident involving a teenage boy.

Chauvin last year was convicted of murder and manslaughter and sentenced to 22½ years in prison in the state’s criminal case against him. He now awaits sentencing on the federal charges.

The case against Thao, Kueng and Lane will be decided by 12 jurors selected last week. There are also six alternates. Their identities or ages are not publicly known.

Of the 12 jurors, five are white men, six are white women and one appeared to be an Asian woman. Of the alternates, three are white women, two are white men and one appeared to be an Asian man. The lone Black juror was dismissed by U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson after the man said he could not be an impartial juror.

The jury pool is statewide, unlike the jury pool for the state trial for Chauvin, which took place in Hennepin County District Court.

The defense attorneys for the officers — Robert Paule for Thao, Thomas Plunkett for Kueng and Earl Gray for Lane — sought to distance their clients from Chauvin’s actions.

Paule told the jury that everyone is by now familiar with the Facebook video shot by then-17-year-old Darnella Frazier showing the incident, which went viral and sparked weeks of national and international protests and civil unrest.

“That Facebook does not show what happened before that,” Paule said. “For you to understand what happened before the incident … you have to look at what occurred before the Facebook video.”

Plunkett, who spoke after Paule, cast his client as a young, idealistic individual who grew up in a multicultural household in north Minneapolis. Kueng, he said, was 26 when Floyd was killed, and he became a police officer to help improve the profession. He said Kueng did not have a romanticized view of law enforcement.

This is a “tragic tale about a rookie officer, less than three full shifts into his career, who was confronted with an extraordinarily complex, rapidly unfolding set of circumstances,” Plunkett said.

“These are failures on the part of the Minneapolis Police Department,” Plunkett said, noting that field training officers have considerable sway over a new officer’s career. “Kueng was let down by the Minneapolis police administration.”

Gray sought to emphasize the risk Floyd posed to officers who arrived at the scene, noting that Floyd, at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, was “all muscle” and potentially under the influence of drugs.

Gray defended Lane as the sole officer who spoke up about Floyd’s condition during the struggle to subdue him. He said Lane, who he indicated would be testifying, asked Chauvin at various points during the arrest if Floyd, who was lying face down on the pavement, could instead be placed on his side.

Lane later performed chest compressions on Floyd after asking to ride in the ambulance with him, Gray said. Those actions demonstrate he was not willful or indifferent to Floyd. Gray called the case against his client a “perversion of justice.”

Floyd’s killing sparked nationwide protests and a fierce debate about race and policing. Chauvin became the first white Minnesota police officer to be convicted for killing a Black person while on duty.

This story was initially published by the Minnesota Reformer, an affiliate of the nonprofit States Newsroom, which includes the Florida Phoenix.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.