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

From left, former Minneapolis police officers J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas K. Lane and Tou Thao. They have been charged with federal civil rights violations in George Floyd’s death and will go on trial Jan. 20. (Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office/AP)
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ST. PAUL, Minn. — Ten months after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death, the other officers at the scene — J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas K. Lane and Tou Thao — face trial on federal charges that they deprived Floyd of his federal civil rights in the fatal May 2020 arrest. After four weeks of testimony beginning Jan. 24, the jury began deliberations Wednesday.

The proceedings will test the question of what responsibility other police officers have in reining in the behavior of colleagues. It is the first of two trials scheduled for the former officers. Kueng, Lane and Thao also face state charges of aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s killing. That trial is scheduled to take place in June.

Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, died May 25, 2020, after he was restrained face down and handcuffed on a South Minneapolis street. Chauvin, the senior officer at the scene, pressed his knees into Floyd’s neck and back for 9 ½ minutes. Kueng and Lane restrained Floyd’s back and legs even as the man cried out repeatedly that he could not breathe and ultimately lost consciousness. Thao, who had arrived at the scene with Chauvin, stood nearby pushing back bystanders who urged the officers to get off Floyd and to check his pulse.

What led to Floyd’s encounter with police?

Kueng, 28, and Lane, 38, were on only their third and fourth shifts as full-time officers on the force when they responded to a 911 call about the passing of a counterfeit bill. They were the first to encounter Floyd outside Cup Foods in South Minneapolis.

Police body-camera video filed as evidence in the state case showed Lane pulling a gun on Floyd within 15 seconds as Floyd sat in a parked car. Floyd reacted by begging the officer not to shoot him.

Chauvin, 45, a 19-year officer who had been Kueng’s field trainer and had occasionally advised Lane, arrived on the scene a few minutes later with Thao, 36, an officer with 8 years’ service. They came upon Kueng and Lane struggling to put a handcuffed Floyd inside a squad car as the man complained of being claustrophobic.

The struggle ended up with Floyd on the ground, where body-camera video shows that Thao suggested they “just leave him” as they waited for an ambulance that Lane had called to the scene after noticing that Floyd had an abrasion on his face after the scuffle in the car. While Thao stood nearby pushing back a crowd of bystanders, Lane held Floyd’s legs, Kueng held him down by his back and Chauvin pressed a knee into Floyd’s neck and back as the man complained of difficulty breathing, then went limp.

Who is on trial?

Kueng and Lane were rookie officers who had attended the Minneapolis Police Academy together and graduated in December 2019. After a roughly four-and-a-half-month field training program, the two had just been elevated to full-fledged officers in the days before they encountered Floyd.

Kueng, the son of a White mother and a Nigerian father who identifies as Black, grew up in north Minneapolis, the heart of the city’s Black community, and initially dreamed of playing professional soccer before a knee injury forced him to shift course. Described an “idealist” by his attorney, Kueng told a jury that his family had interactions with the Minneapolis police that “rubbed” him the wrong way and led him to believe he needed to “step up” and be the change he wanted to see in policing.

Lane, who is White, joined the Minneapolis police as a cadet when he was 35 — much older than usual recruits. A native of the suburbs of Minneapolis, Lane had previously worked as a juvenile corrections officer in Hennepin County but felt compelled to join the Minneapolis force, following three generations of men in his family, including his grandfather and great-grandfather, who worked for the department. Lane said he won a community service award while at the academy, and his attorney showed the jury a photo of him shaking hands with Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and then-Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, about six months before the encounter with Floyd. Lane is married, and his wife, who is expecting their first child, has been frequently seen in court.

After Kueng and Lane graduated from the police academy, they entered the field training program, where they were assigned to full-time officers to give them real-world training. Both eventually ended up the city’s 3rd Precinct, where Chauvin was Kueng’s field training officer and occasionally advised Lane.

Thao was an eight-year veteran of the department who was assigned to the 3rd Precinct and frequently paired with Chauvin on calls. A Hmong American whose parents were immigrants, Thao recalled for the jury a tumultuous childhood growing up in poverty in north Minneapolis where his father was frequently abusive. He said he was inspired to become a police officer after an incident in which his father grabbed a gun and threatened to kill the entire family after his mother tried to stop him from beating Thao and his siblings. Thao said he was inspired to become a police officer after observing officers arrest his father, describing the two days that his father was in jail as the “most peaceful days of my childhood.”

Thao graduated from the police academy in late 2009, but because of a fiscal crisis, he was immediately furloughed. Thao told the jury that he took a job working security at a hospital before he was called back to join the Minneapolis force full-time in February 2012. Personnel records show Thao was the subject of six complaints — the details of which have not been released and ended in no discipline. Thao, whose wife testified about his “peaceful character,” said he has three children — including a 1-month-old.

What charges are they facing?

A federal grand jury indicted Chauvin, Kueng, Lane and Thao in May 2021 on charges they violated Floyd’s constitutional rights during the fatal encounter. The indictment came days after Chauvin was convicted on state charges of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in Floyd’s death.

Federal prosecutors alleged that Chauvin violated Floyd’s constitutional rights to be free from unreasonable seizure and from unreasonable force by a police officer. Kueng and Thao were charged with violating Floyd’s right to be free from unreasonable seizure by not intervening as Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck. All four officers were charged with failing to render medical aid to Floyd. The four former officers pleaded not guilty to the charges in September.

In December, Chauvin, who is serving a 22½-year state sentence, pleaded guilty to the federal charges. He is awaiting sentencing in the case. Prosecutors said they will recommend a sentence of 25 years that they said could be served concurrently with Chauvin’s state conviction.

Federal civil rights violations that result in death are punishable by up to life in prison or even the death penalty, but those sentences are rare. Legal experts say the former officers, if convicted, probably would receive a less-severe sentence.

Kueng, Lane and Thao also face trial on state charges of aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter. Those proceedings had been scheduled for March, but the judge in that case granted a joint request from the defense and prosecution to delay that trial until June.

What is the evidence against the officers?

Evidence in the federal case includes much of the same material presented in Chauvin’s state trial, including extensive bystander video and police body-camera video as well as medical evidence about what caused Floyd’s death. Prosecutors presented training records they said show the three officers had been trained on the department’s policies on the duty to intervene and use of force, which instructs officers to stop using force when someone is no longer resisting and to reposition a handcuffed person into a “side recovery” position to alleviate breathing issues. Prosecutors also presented the jury with records showing the officers had been trained to “immediately” perform CPR if someone in their custody lost a pulse.

Who has testified?

Prosecutors had disclosed 48 potential witnesses in the case but called just 21 before resting their the case on Feb. 14. Many of the witnesses had previously testified in Chauvin’s state murder trial — including Genevieve Hansen, an off-duty Minneapolis firefighter who was blocked by Thao when she asked to check Floyd’s pulse and perform CPR. Three Minneapolis police officers testified that Kueng, Lane and Thao’s behavior was “inconsistent” with their training on medical and intervention policies. The final prosecution witness was Darnella Frazier, the teenager who filmed the video of Floyd’s death, who broke down on the stand before testifying about how she asked the officers why they were continuing to hold Floyd down when he was telling them he couldn’t breathe.

The defense portion of the case began Feb. 15, as Thao testified in his own defense, emphasizing he never touched Floyd. Kueng took the stand the next day, claiming he was taking Chauvin’s lead at the scene. Lane was the final witness in the case, recalling how he tried to get Chauvin to reposition Floyd onto his side but was rebuffed.

There was speculation that Chauvin could be called as a witness in the case, but he ultimately didn’t testify.

What are the ex-officers’ defenses?

Lawyers for Kueng and Lane have argued that their clients were following orders from Chauvin, their senior who they claim was calling the shots at the scene.

Lane, who was holding Floyd’s legs, testified that he 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 knee from Floyd’s body until nudged by a responding paramedic.

Kueng testified that he had deferred to Chauvin, his former trainer, because senior officers were “always” in charge of a scene. He also said he wasn’t sure if Chauvin was violating policy on the use of neck restraints because hadn’t been trained on the maneuver. Kueng claimed he detected no “serious medical need” in Floyd even as he twice checked for his pulse and couldn’t find one and suggested he didn’t believe Floyd when he told the officers he couldn’t breathe or that he was in pain.

Thao, who said he never touched Floyd, testified that he was playing a “different role” at the scene and was more focused on crowd control — though he agreed with prosecutors that he was standing next to and often looking down at Floyd and the other officers for most of the time he was on the ground. Thao said he relied on the officers who were restraining Floyd to monitor his condition and believed that because they weren’t performing CPR that Floyd was “fine.”

Although Chauvin was ultimately not called as a witness, prosecutors seemed to have prepared for that possibility, according to language in the plea agreement that Chauvin reached in December in the case. In that agreement, Chauvin admitted that he heard Kueng tell him 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 knee from Floyd’s neck — a claim that could prove pivotal as a jury considers whether the former officers “willfully” deprived Floyd of his rights and ignored his need for medical care.

How was the jury picked?

Not unlike in Chauvin’s state murder case, the federal court summoned a larger jury pool than usual — about 1,000 people, according to the judge. But unlike that case, the federal jury pool included people from across the entire state of Minnesota, not just Hennepin County, where Floyd was killed.

In November, potential jurors were sent a long questionnaire similar to a survey mailed out ahead of Chauvin’s trial, according to the Star Tribune, asking what they had heard about the case and the defendants, and soliciting their views on groups such as Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter.

Unlike Chauvin’s trial, where the prosecution and defense were able to question potential jurors, Magnuson elected to question jurors himself — a decision that dramatically sped up the process. On Jan. 20, the first day of jury selection in the case, a panel of 12 jurors and six alternates was seated after about five hours of questioning — a contrast to the two weeks it took to pick a jury in Chauvin’s state case.

Four jurors were excused during the case, including for illness and personal reasons. Barring any further changes, the jury that will consider the case includes eight women and four men. 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. Most of the seated panel came from counties in and around the Twin Cities, but there were also jurors from all over the state, including Jackson County, Minn., along the state’s southwestern border with Iowa, and Olmsted County in southeastern Minnesota.

Unless jurors choose to speak publicly after the verdict, it’s likely information about who they are and their deliberations will remain secret for the immediate future. On Feb. 23, Magnuson signed an order sealing juror information in the case for ten years, and even then, requests will only be considered on a “case by case” basis.

How long will the trial last?

After about four weeks of testimony, closing arguments were held Feb. 22. The jury was expected to begin deliberations Feb. 23.

Magnuson had repeatedly pressed attorneys on both sides to move quickly, citing concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus. The judge initially said he hoped to wrap up the trial in two weeks, but he later told jurors the better estimate would be four weeks.

On Feb. 2, Magnuson abruptly recessed the trial, announcing that one of the defendants had tested positive for coronavirus. The court did not identify which of the former officers had tested positive, but when court resumed on Feb. 7, Magnuson said he had gotten a note from Lane’s doctor saying he was no longer contagious.

How can I watch the trial?

Unlike Chauvin’s state murder trial, which was live-streamed, the latest proceedings will not be televised because of a ban on cameras in federal courtrooms. The trial of Kueng, Lane and Thao will take place inside a heavily fortified federal courthouse in St. Paul, where access by the public has been limited for security reasons and to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

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