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Prosecution’s case against former officers charged in George Floyd’s death ends with teenage witness

In this sketch, from left, former police officer Tou Thao, attorney Robert Paule, attorney Natalie Paule, attorney Tom Plunkett, former police officers J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane, and attorney Earl Gray appear in federal court on Jan. 24 in St. Paul, Minn., for opening statements in their trial in the killing of George Floyd. (Cedric Hohnstadt/AP)
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ST. PAUL, Minn. — Federal prosecutors concluded their case against three former Minneapolis police officers accused of violating George Floyd’s civil rights with testimony from the teenage girl whose viral Facebook video of the fatal arrest sparked worldwide protests.

Darnella Frazier was 17 when she filmed Floyd’s arrest, documenting the man as he begged for breath while restrained, handcuffed and face down on a South Minneapolis street by three police officers.

Taking the witness stand inside a federal courtroom Monday, Frazier almost immediately burst into tears, a rare show of emotion in a trial where U.S. District Judge Paul A. Magnuson has sought to limit such displays amid complaints from defense attorneys that it could be prejudicial to their clients.

“I can’t do it. I’m sorry!” Frazier cried out, prompting Magnuson to quickly dismiss the jury and call a short recess. But Frazier later returned to the stand where she briefly identified the video she took of Floyd and the officers on May 25, 2020 — footage that is at the cornerstone of the government’s evidence against former officers J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas K. Lane and Tou Thao, who are accused of violating Floyd’s constitutional rights.

Frazier previously testified about her ongoing trauma at having witnessed Floyd’s death during the state murder trial of former officer Derek Chauvin, who pressed his knees into Floyd’s neck and back for 9 minutes and 29 seconds. Kueng and Lane were also restraining Floyd — holding his back and legs — while Thao kept a growing crowd of bystanders back, as they pressed officers with increasing urgency to get off Floyd and check his pulse.

On March 29, 2021, Darnella Frazier, who filmed the viral video of the arrest, said that she saw George Floyd “suffering” and in “pain.” (Video: The Washington Post)

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

Frazier told the jury of hearing Floyd’s cries as she and her younger cousin walked to a corner store. She said she began filming the scene because she sensed something was “wrong.” She watched as Floyd went from looking “uncomfortable” and trying to lift himself up to “gain oxygen” to slowly becoming “weaker” before he “stopped making sounds overall.”

“I asked the officer, ‘How long do you have to hold him down if someone is saying they can’t breathe?’ ” Frazier said. “I didn’t understand why the officers had to hold him down so long.”

Frazier testified for less than 15 minutes. After she left the stand, prosecutors formally rested their case, paving the way for the defense case to begin Tuesday. Attorneys for all three officers immediately moved to have charges dismissed, but Magnuson denied their motions, though he said he would consider written briefs on the subject.

Young witnesses to George Floyd’s death testify they felt helpless as they watched him die and feared Derek Chauvin

At the conclusion of proceedings, Magnuson asked all three former officers if they planned to testify in their own defense. Kueng and Thao indicated they would. But Earl Gray, an attorney for Lane, said he wanted more time to confer with his client. Gray had told the jury during opening statements that Lane planned to take the stand.

A federal grand jury indicted Chauvin, Kueng, Lane and Thao in May 2021 on charges that they violated Floyd’s constitutional rights during the fatal 2020 arrest. 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. Kueng, Lane and Thao have each pleaded not guilty. It is the first of two scheduled trials for Kueng, Lane and Thao, 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.

Prosecutors began presenting their case Jan. 24 with a litany of video that captured Floyd’s death, including footage filmed by Frazier and other eyewitnesses. They called 21 witnesses over 13 days, including an off-duty firefighter who tried to get the officers to check Floyd’s pulse; other law enforcement officers; and medical experts.

Three Minneapolis police officers testified that Kueng, Lane and Thao had been trained to stop force when it was no longer necessary and to intervene when another officer used excessive force or a restraint that was not allowed under department policy.

Katie Blackwell, a Minneapolis Police Department inspector who commanded the agency’s training division at the time of Floyd’s death, said Kueng, Lane and Thao violated department policy by not pushing Chauvin off Floyd.

“You are accountable for what you do — and if you don’t do anything at all,” Blackwell said, as prosecutors questioned her about the department’s training practices and policies in the run-up to Floyd’s killing.

Both Blackwell and Nicole Mackenzie, a Minneapolis officer who oversees the department’s medical training, were asked about body-camera footage that showed Lane asked Chauvin if they should roll Floyd onto his side — footage that shows Lane “did everything he could to help” Floyd, his attorney argued.

But both argued what Lane did wasn’t enough. “He was making the right suggestions. I believe he recognized this was a medical emergency that needed intervention, and I believe he was trying to get people on board,” Mackenzie testified. But “suggesting aid and actually rendering aid are two very different things. … A suggestion will not pump blood through your system.”

Defense attorneys sought to discredit that testimony, repeatedly pointing out to the jury that MPD is facing state and federal investigations into its policies and training practices. They have argued that officers were given conflicting training on use of force and presented videos of academy training that showed a cadet placing his knee on someone’s neck without intervention by instructors.

Thomas Plunkett, an attorney for Kueng, also argued that officers are not given adequate training on intervention policies — describing the duty to intervene training as “little more than a PowerPoint.”

Plunkett has repeatedly questioned witnesses on whether the Minneapolis police training instills an “us versus them” or “cops versus the world” mentality. In one instance, he showed the jury a YouTube video shown to Kueng and Lane in their use-of-force training at the academy.

The video includes footage of police officers being shot and attacked in the line of duty, cast against the audio of a fiery speech given by Al Pacino in the film “Any Given Sunday.” In the audio, Pacino, who portrays a professional football coach in the film, speaks of “willing to fight and die” to win, as the footage shows officers being bloodied.

Plunkett replayed the video Monday during testimony of Timothy Longo, the chief of police at the University of Virginia and prosecution witness who testified that MPD training on use of force and the duty to intervene was consistent with generally accepted policing practices.

“I assume you’re going to say that it’s completely acceptable and consistent with policing practices because that’s what you’re here for,” Plunkett told Longo after the video played.

Longo called the footage “deeply disturbing” but said he couldn’t “judge the entire training curriculum based on this single four-minute … video.”

Prosecution evidence included previously unseen body-camera footage from the scene that showed Kueng and Lane omitted key details of the fatal arrest, including that Floyd had lost a pulse and was no longer breathing, during conversations with senior officers who responded to the scene.

“What they told me and what was on the video is totally different,” testified Lt. Richard Zimmerman, a longtime Minneapolis homicide detective who responded to the scene.

Defense attorneys have sought to shift responsibility to Chauvin for the man’s death, arguing that the 19-year veteran “took control” at the scene and became the “shot caller.” Attorneys for Lane and Thao have also questioned how Chauvin was hired to become a field training officer — where he directly supervised Kueng and advised Lane — despite a history of complaints against him.

At one point Monday, Gray, Lane’s attorney, passionately defended his client during his cross-examination of Longo, insisting the former officer had demonstrated his concern for Floyd by twice asking Chauvin if they should roll the man onto his side. When Longo insisted that wasn’t enough, Gray demanded if he was suggesting that “my client, a four-day veteran” was supposed to walk over in front of a crowd of bystanders and throw Chauvin off Floyd’s body.

“Someone should have done something, yes,” Longo replied.

Gray grew heated, demanding to know if that was a realistic expectation for a rookie to challenge a “veteran.” “What else could they have done?” the lawyer demanded.

“No one asked Chauvin to get his knee off his neck,” Longo replied.