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Opening statements begin in federal trial over George Floyd’s killing

Former Minneapolis police officers J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas K. Lane and Tou Thao were at the scene with Derek Chauvin and are accused of violating Floyd’s civil rights

A sign at the memorial site known as George Floyd Square in Minneapolis. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)
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ST. PAUL, Minn. — The three former Minneapolis police officers charged with violating George Floyd’s civil rights had a “moral responsibility” and “duty” to intervene as Derek Chauvin “crushed the life” out of Floyd during a fatal May 2020 arrest, a prosecutor argued as opening statements began in the federal trial over Floyd’s killing.

“For second after second, minute after minute, these three CPR-trained defendants stood or knelt next to Officer Chauvin as he slowly killed George Floyd right in front of them,” federal prosecutor Samantha Trepel told jurors of former officers J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas K. Lane and Tou Thao, who were at the scene with Chauvin and stand accused of violating Floyd’s constitutional rights.

But defense attorneys for the former officers pushed back on the government’s case, casting Chauvin, the senior officer at the scene, as the one who was “calling the shots,” previewing a trial that is likely to hinge on what responsibility police officers have in reining in the abusive behavior of other officers.

Thomas Plunkett, an attorney for Kueng, told the jury that evidence will show that Chauvin was “clearly in charge” and that his client, a rookie on his third shift as a full-time officer, didn’t have the proper training to deal with the situation as it unfolded or on how to intervene when other officers use improper force.

“He was thrust into these events with inadequate training [and] a lack of experience,” Plunkett argued, pointing out that Chauvin had been Kueng’s field training officer and has the power to recommend Kueng’s termination and influence his future on the force.

Monday’s opening statements marked the first of two expected trials this year for the ex-officers, who are also facing state charges of aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s killing. That trial is scheduled to take place in June.

Kueng, Lane and Thao have each pleaded not guilty in both cases. All three have signaled through their attorneys that they will place the blame for 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.

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. He is awaiting sentencing in that case.

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.

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.

“For 9 minutes and 29 seconds, the three defendants didn’t lift a finger as Mr. Floyd repeatedly told them, ‘I can’t breathe,’” Trepel told jurors during the prosecution’s opening statement, referring to the amount of time Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck and back.

The jury was presented with still images of the officers at the scene — showing Thao standing near Chauvin, with Kueng and Lane positioned at Floyd’s back and legs. Trepel said the former officers ignored their own training to care for suspects in their custody, as well as the increasingly urgent cries of bystanders, who urged them to check Floyd’s pulse as the man lost consciousness.

“They watched as Mr. Floyd suffered a slow and agonizing death,” Trepel said. The prosecutor said the officers could have rolled Floyd onto his side, putting him into a better position to breathe, but instead they “stood by and chose to let it continue,” making “a conscious choice not to act.”

Plunkett and Robert Paule, an attorney for Thao, acknowledged that many jurors had seen the viral Facebook video of Floyd’s death but insisted it did not fully capture the totality of the chaotic scene, including what officers there were “seeing and hearing.”

“The fact that Mr. Floyd lost his life under these circumstances is a tragedy, but that doesn’t mean that Mr. Thao committed a crime,” Paule said. “A tragedy is not a crime.”

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

The federal case is expected to be dominated by evidence that has already been introduced in the state case. Jurors late Monday were shown footage from Lane’s body camera of the fatal arrest, the first of dozens of clips that are expected to be shown in the case. As the footage played, Floyd’s brother, Philonise, who was seated in the gallery behind the prosecution, was seen averting his eyes as his brother’s pleas for breath echoed across the courtroom.

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 responding medical personnel. The prosecution also indicated it planned to call numerous Minneapolis police officers to the stand to testify about the department’s training and policies on use of force and the duty to intervene.

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.

Lawyers for Kueng and Lane have argued that their clients were taking cues 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.

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

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.

Trepel told the jury that being a rookie officer was no excuse. “As a newer officer, it can be awkward to call out a more experienced colleague,” she said. But “each of these defendants wore the same badge and swore the same oath. Being a police officer comes with life and death responsibilities.”

Thao 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. But Trepel told jurors that his body-camera video will show him turning to look back at the other three officers atop Floyd several times, including when the man told the officers he could not breathe.

A major question looming over the trial is whether Chauvin will be called as a witness in the case.

In his plea agreement last month, Chauvin said 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 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 cases against those former officers.

Earl Gray, an attorney for Lane, used his opening statement to present Chauvin as being in control of the scene, telling jurors that Chauvin stepped in front of Lane to try to gain control of Floyd as they were trying to place him in the squad car. “He takes over,” Gray said.

Gray pointed to body-camera footage showing Lane trying to get Chauvin to roll Floyd onto his side — a suggestion that Chauvin refused — later performing chest compressions on Floyd as he was taken from the scene in an ambulance.

Gray repeatedly referred to Floyd’s size — calling him tall and “all muscle” — and referred to the fentanyl and methamphetamine found in the man’s system during his autopsy. The attorney referred to Lane, who is 6-foot-7, as a “gentle giant” — a phrase that was widely used to describe Floyd in the aftermath of his death.

Gray said it was a “perversion of justice” that Lane was charged in the case. “He was totally concerned and did everything he could possibly do to help George Floyd,” the attorney insisted.

A panel of 12 jurors and six alternates was picked for the case Thursday — a selection that took just one day, compared with the two weeks it took to seat a jury in the Chauvin murder trial. The seated jury included seven women and five men. The six alternates included three men and three women. The federal court did not release demographic information about the jury, but pool reporters inside the courtroom said the panel appeared to be majority White.

The jury pool was picked from across Minnesota — a region that is more conservative and White compared with the state’s Hennepin County, where Chauvin’s trial was held. Most on the seated panel come from counties in and around the Twin Cities, but there are also jurors from places including Jackson County, along the state’s southwestern border with Iowa, and Olmsted County, in southeastern Minnesota.