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Another trial in the killing of George Floyd, this time for other officers at the scene

Former Minneapolis police officers J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas K. Lane and Tou Thao are accused of violating Floyd’s federal civil rights

From left, former Minneapolis police officers J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao. They are charged with violating George Floyd’s civil rights during his fatal May 2020 arrest. (AP)
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ST. PAUL, Minn. — Nine months after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder and manslaughter in the killing of George Floyd, the other officers at the scene face their turn in the courtroom.

A jury was seated Thursday in the federal trial of former officers J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas K. Lane and Tou Thao, who are charged with violating Floyd’s civil rights during the fatal May 2020 arrest, paving the way for opening statements to begin Monday. It is the first of two scheduled trials this year for the ex-officers, who are also facing state charges of aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s killing. They are set to stand trial in that case in June.

Kueng, Lane and Thao have pleaded not guilty in both cases. All three have signaled through their attorneys that they are likely to blame Floyd’s death on Chauvin, who was convicted in April on state charges of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter and sentenced to 22½ years in prison.

Judge Peter A. Cahill on June 25 sentenced former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin to 22.5 years in prison for the murder of George Floyd. (Video: The Washington Post)

Chauvin pleaded guilty last month to separate federal charges that he violated Floyd’s constitutional rights when he knelt on the man’s neck and back for 9 minutes and 29 seconds as Floyd begged for breath and ultimately lost a pulse. Chauvin is awaiting sentencing in that case. Prosecutors said they would recommend a sentence of 25 years to be served concurrently with his murder conviction.

Floyd’s death, captured on bystander video, sparked historic protests and spurred an emotional reckoning on issues of race and justice that continue to play out across the country. In the Twin Cities, where there have been several high-profile police killings before and after Floyd, some wonder whether that reckoning is playing out in the courtroom, too.

Susan Gaertner, former chief prosecutor in Ramsey County, Minn., said the convictions of Chauvin and Kimberly Potter suggested that the landscape around police-involved killings in the region had changed “dramatically” in the aftermath of Floyd’s death.

Gaertner pointed to the differences in how the officers had been charged and how aggressively their cases had been prosecuted. “But the big change is the apparent receptivity of juries to convict police officers when they harm or kill someone in the line of duty,” she said.

While judges often order juries to ignore everything they hear outside the courtroom, the racial reckoning after Floyd’s death had played out everywhere. “You combine all the different aspects of our society that is paying more attention to racial injustice and to expectations about police behavior, and that’s going to filter down into the 12 people that go into that jury deliberation room,” said Gaertner, who now works as a defense attorney in the Twin Cities. She said it is “humanly impossible” for jurors to completely ignore the events of the past two years even if a judge asks them to. “Our minds just don’t work that way.”

Former Minneapolis police officers charged with violating George Floyd’s civil rights plead not guilty

It’s a concern that appears to be on the minds not only of the attorneys for the former officers but also that of U.S. District Judge Paul A. Magnuson, who recently marked his 40th anniversary on the federal bench and was assigned to oversee the case. As in the Chauvin and Potter cases, the court summoned a larger-than-usual pool of potential jurors — about 300 people. Each person was asked to fill out a lengthy questionnaire probing their knowledge of the case and opinions on groups such as Black Lives Matter and the recent racial justice demonstrations.

On Thursday, Magnuson handled the questioning, or voir dire, of potential jurors — a different approach than Chauvin’s trial, when the prosecution and defense individually questioned jurors. In that case, it took two weeks to pick a jury.

In this case, Magnuson questioned 57 jurors over about four hours, with 40 ultimately passed for cause. That group was then narrowed down to a panel of 12 jurors and six alternates late Thursday — a faster-than-expected selection that allows opening statements to begin Monday.

The seated jury included seven women and five men. The six alternates included three men and three women. While the federal court did not release demographic information about the jury, pool reporters inside the courtroom said the panel appeared to be majority White.

Attorneys for the former officers have questioned in court filings whether their clients can receive a fair trial, pointing to the intense news coverage of Floyd’s death and Chauvin’s trial and conviction. But unlike in the state case, the federal jury pool includes people from across the entire state of Minnesota, not just the Twin Cities — which legal experts said could lead to a panel more favorable to the former officers.

On Thursday, jurors seated in the case included residents from all over the state, including Jackson County, Minn. — along the state’s southwestern border with Iowa — and Olmsted County in southeastern Minnesota. But many identified themselves as residents of the counties that make up the Twin Cities — including at least four who said they lived in Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed.

Several potential jurors told the judge they could not be impartial in the case because they had watched Chauvin’s trial or had relatives or friends who were police officers.

One juror was dismissed after he told the judge he could no longer view video of Floyd’s death. Another said that she was a resident of the Minneapolis suburbs and that she was disturbed by “vandalism” in the community in the aftermath of Floyd’s death.

Magnuson told the women that he understood concerns about “anarchy in the streets or whatever you want to call it” but that jurors could not let “fear” shape their views of the case. The woman was ultimately excused.

The jury pool questioned Thursday appeared to include only one Black man, an immigrant, from Hennepin County, who told the judge he was not sure he could be impartial “because of the color of my skin” and because of his religious faith in which he felt he could not “judge other human beings.”

“This case has nothing to do with race. It has nothing to do with religion,” Magnuson told the man.

“I still think I cannot do it,” the man replied, prompting the judge to excuse him from the case.

What to know about the federal trial of the three former Minneapolis police officers charged in George Floyd’s death

A federal grand jury indicted Chauvin, Kueng, Lane and Thao in May on charges that they violated Floyd’s constitutional rights when he was restrained and handcuffed face down on a Minneapolis street during an investigation of an alleged counterfeit $20 bill as he complained of struggling to breathe and ultimately lost consciousness.

Kueng, Lane and Thao were charged with failing to render medical aid to Floyd. Kueng and Thao were also charged with violating Floyd’s right to be free from unreasonable seizure by not intervening as Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck and back.

The federal case is expected to be dominated by evidence that has already been introduced in the state case — including extensive footage of Floyd’s final minutes taken from bystander video and police body-camera video. Many of the same witnesses who appeared in the Chauvin trial are expected to testify — including Darnella Frazier, who was 17 when she recorded the viral video of Floyd’s final minutes, and medical personnel who responded to the scene.

Derek Chauvin sentenced to 22½ years in prison for the murder of George Floyd

But Mark Osler, a former federal prosecutor who is now a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, said there is a major difference between the state case against the former officers and the federal case over Floyd’s death. “In those cases, we’re looking at what an officer did. Here, we are looking at what an officer did not do: failure to intervene, failure to provide medical aid, and so it’s a different type of question,” Osler said. “It goes from being ‘What did you do?’ to ‘What did you have a duty to do?’ And that’s a very interesting question.”

Kueng and Lane had been full-time officers for less than a week when they encountered Floyd as they responded to a 911 call about a counterfeit $20 bill that had been passed at Cup Foods, a local market. Body-camera video from the scene showed Lane pull a gun on Floyd within 15 seconds of encountering the man in a parked car, without announcing who he was or what he was investigating.

Chauvin arrived on the scene a few minutes later with Thao as Lane and Kueng struggled to place Floyd, who was handcuffed, inside a squad car. Body-camera video shows Floyd complaining of claustrophobia and ultimately being placed face down on a city street, with Chauvin pressing his knees into Floyd’s neck and back, Kueng atop Floyd’s back and Lane holding the man’s legs. Thao stood a few feet away, pushing back bystanders who increasingly pressed the officers to get off Floyd as he began to lose consciousness.

Video shows Floyd complained at least 25 times of not being able to breathe — cries the officers dismissed even as the man went limp.

Body camera footage shows struggle leading to George Floyd’s fatal police encounter

Lawyers for Kueng and Lane have argued that their clients were following orders from Chauvin, a 19-year member of the department who had been Kueng’s field training officer and informally advised Lane during his probation period.

Lane, who was holding Floyd’s legs, twice asked Chauvin whether they should reposition Floyd — requests that his lawyer says prove that he tried to intervene with a senior officer but was rebuffed. Kueng later checked Floyd’s pulse — twice telling Chauvin that he couldn’t detect the man’s heartbeat. But Chauvin did not remove his knees from Floyd’s body until nudged by a responding paramedic.

Thao, meanwhile, claimed in a 2020 interview with state police investigators that he was unaware of what was going on behind him because he was too focused on the growing crowd.

It’s unclear whether Chauvin will be called as a witness in the trial. But in his plea agreement last month, Chauvin admitted he heard Kueng tell him that Floyd no longer had a pulse. Chauvin also said he heard Lane ask him whether Floyd “should be rolled onto his side.”

But Chauvin also said he “did not observe” Kueng, Lane or Thao “do or say anything” to get him to lift his knees from Floyd’s body — a claim that could prove pivotal in the looming cases against those former officers.

Unlike Chauvin’s state trial, which was live-streamed to millions, the latest proceedings won’t be televised because of a federal ban on cameras in the courtroom. The trial is scheduled to be held in a seventh-floor courtroom inside a heavily fortified federal courthouse in downtown St. Paul. Layers of security fencing have been erected around the building, and surrounding roads have been closed amid concerns over protests.

But the biggest threat, the judge suggested last week, could be the coronavirus pandemic. In a pretrial hearing, Magnuson cited concerns about increasing coronavirus cases in the state, urging attorneys to “move the case along” as fast as possible to avoid jurors or trial participants getting sick.

“The longer we are in the courtroom, the more exposure we have to covid,” Magnuson said. He warned that if jurors got sick and the panel fell below the 12 needed to deliberate, there could be a mistrial. “If we don’t have 12 people sitting here, you know what happens: We all go home.”

On Thursday, Magnuson said at least four potential jurors summoned in the case today indicated they were unvaccinated or did not say on their jury form. It was not immediately clear if those jurors were among those ultimately seated in the case.

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