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Former Minneapolis officers ‘chose to do nothing’ as Chauvin knelt on Floyd, prosecutor says in closing

An image from surveillance video shows, from left, Minneapolis police officers Tou Thao, Derek Chauvin, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane attempting to take George Floyd into custody in Minneapolis. (AP)
9 min

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Three former Minneapolis police officers “chose to do nothing” as Derek Chauvin slowly killed George Floyd by pressing a knee into his neck, putting their “discomfort in questioning a colleague” above their duty to save a life, a prosecutor said in closing arguments in the federal trial over Floyd’s death.

Prosecutor Manda Sertich argued that former officers J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas K. Lane and Tou Thao, charged with violating Floyd’s civil rights, knew Floyd was in medical danger beneath Chauvin’s knee, as they heard him repeatedly begging for breath before losing consciousness.

Sertich told jurors that the ex-officers had been trained to stop another officer from using unreasonable force, to shift a handcuffed person from the prone position onto their side and to render medical aid when there are “red flags,” including when someone in their custody loses a pulse.

“These defendants knew what was happening, and contrary to their training, contrary to common sense, contrary to basic human decency, they did nothing to stop Derek Chauvin, did nothing to help George Floyd. You know it because you’ve seen it,” Sertich said, pointing to the numerous videos of the fatal May 2020 arrest that have been introduced into evidence.

But defense attorneys argued the videos didn’t offer a complete picture of what happened at the scene, including what the officers were seeing and experiencing in the moment, such as their perceptions of Floyd’s condition. They blamed poor training and shifted responsibility for the man’s death to Chauvin, saying their clients had trusted and deferred to him.

The jury is scheduled to begin deliberating the case Wednesday.

In the federal case over George Floyd’s killing, former officers put the Minneapolis police on trial

Closing arguments in the case lasted all day Tuesday — beginning with an initial two-hour opening from the prosecution followed by attorneys for the three former officers, who spoke about an hour apiece summing up nearly a month of testimony in the closely watched case that could test how much responsibility officers have in reining in the bad behavior of colleagues.

Attorneys for Kueng and Lane repeatedly reminded the jury that their clients were rookies who had been full-fledged officers for three and four shifts, respectively, when they encountered a “complex” situation with Floyd that led them to rely on Chauvin, who was the senior officer at the scene and had been Kueng’s field training officer.

Thomas Plunkett, an attorney for Kueng who has spent much of his defense case attacking policies and practices of the Minneapolis Police Department, pressed the jury to consider the “inadequate training” his client had received, including on the duty to intervene. He also pointed to Kueng’s “lack of experience” and his “perceived subordinate role to Chauvin.” Kueng had “confidence” that he was doing the right thing as they held Floyd on the ground, Plunkett said.

“I am not saying he wasn’t trained,” Plunkett told the jury. “I am saying the training was inadequate to see and understand what was happening there.”

Plunkett said Kueng was “under the influence” of Chauvin at a scene that was more than he could handle. “He respected this person. He looked up to this person. He relied on this person’s experience,” Plunkett said.

Earl Gray, an attorney for Lane, reminded the jury that his client twice asked Chauvin if they should reposition Floyd but was rebuffed — which he argued proved that Lane was concerned about Floyd’s well-being.

Prosecutors have repeatedly argued that Lane did not follow those requests with action that would have saved Floyd’s life — including actually asking Chauvin to get off Floyd or physically removing him so that they could get Floyd onto his side to improve his breathing or perform CPR.

Sertich said in her closing argument that by the time Lane jumped into an ambulance to perform chest compressions in an attempt to revive Floyd, who had been limp and without a pulse for minutes, it was “too late” to overcome the officers’ inaction at the scene.

But Gray, in a fiery closing argument, repeatedly suggested it was unrealistic to think that two young officers could have done anything to stop Chauvin. He pointed to body-camera video that he said showed Chauvin step in front of his client to gain control of Floyd as they struggled to place the man inside a squad car.

Gray suggested Chauvin, 46, was trying to put the rookies in their place, to “show these guys” that he was “the boss.” “He was going to be the leader of the pack with these two kids,” Gray said of Kueng, 28, and Lane, 38. “He was going to take charge.”

Both he and Plunkett referred to the deep emotions around Floyd’s killing, which sparked worldwide protests and a national reckoning on issues of race and justice. Plunkett told the jury that a courtroom trial before observers who have pledged to be neutral and to consider the facts before them was a protection against the “mob mentality” that might impede justice.

Gray, who spoke after Plunkett, went further, suggesting that the federal government had gone after Lane despite what he called a lack of evidence that his client showed “deliberate indifference” to Floyd. “You know why? Politics, ladies and gentlemen!” Gray shouted, prompting a prosecution objection that was overruled. “Mob rule politics!”

Gray called Lane an “innocent man” and pointed out how he performed CPR on Floyd in the ambulance. “How in the world can our government, the wonderful United States of America, freedom and all that, charge somebody that does that?” Gray asked. He told the jury that it was “scary” and something for them “to think about.”

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

Attorneys for all three men questioned the credibility of Minneapolis police officers who testified for the prosecution — pointing out the department is under state and federal investigation for its training and practices.

Robert Paule, an attorney for Thao, showed the jury photos and videos of police officers placing their knees on people’s necks to restrain them during academy training as he and the other attorneys sought to raise doubts about whether the officers knew Chauvin was using a prohibited maneuver.

Paule repeatedly emphasized that his client, who was pushing back bystanders as they urged officers to check Floyd’s pulse, never touched the man. He said Thao suspected that Floyd was suffering from “excited delirium” and believed they were helping Floyd medically by holding him to prevent him from hurting himself until the paramedics arrived.

Echoing Thao’s testimony in the case, Paule told the jury that his client was relying on the other officers who had physical contact with Floyd to monitor the man’s medical condition and assumed that because they weren’t performing CPR that he was okay.

He called Floyd’s death “a tragedy.” “However, a tragedy is not a crime,” Paule said.

But prosecutors, who also gave a rebuttal statement, told the jury that they had proved that Kueng, Lane and Thao had “willfully” violated Floyd’s constitutional rights — with Sertich specifically detailing how each officer had violated policy at the scene.

Sertich pointed to footage from the scene showing Thao standing near and looking at Floyd and the other officers as the man begged for breath. She said Thao ignored bystanders’ pleas to help a man who was dying “right before their eyes.”

She showed the jury a still frame from body-camera video showing Kueng atop Floyd and smiling as he laughed at Chauvin telling Floyd that it takes “a heck of a lot of oxygen to keep talking” as the man repeatedly told the officers he couldn’t breathe.

“As the terrified bystanders begged and pleaded, cried out repeatedly for any one of the defendants to do something, anything, defendant Kueng instead casually picked gravel out of the tire in front of him,” Sertich told the jury.

Sertich said the footage clearly shows that Lane knew Floyd was in danger “but did nothing to give Mr. Floyd the medical aid he knew Mr. Floyd so desperately needed.”

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 arrest. Kueng and Thao were charged with violating Floyd’s right to be free from unreasonable seizure by not intervening as Chauvin knelt on his neck. All four officers were charged with failing to render medical aid to Floyd. Kueng, Lane and Thao each pleaded not guilty.

Chauvin, who was convicted on state charges of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in Floyd’s death, pleaded guilty in December to the federal charges. Chauvin, who is serving a 22½-year state sentence, is awaiting sentencing in the federal case.

Prosecutors began presenting their case Jan. 24 with a litany of video that captured Floyd’s death, including footage filmed by teenager Darnella 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.

Kueng, Lane and Thao each testified in their own defense, saying they deferred to Chauvin at the scene. Kueng and Thao said they did not detect any “serious medical need” in Floyd, while Lane emphasized that he tried to get Chauvin to “roll” Floyd onto his side so that he could get a better medical assessment of the man.

But prosecutors pointed out that all three men agreed they were aware of policies requiring them to intervene if they see another officer using unreasonable force, that force should stop when someone in their custody is no longer resisting and that medical intervention should start immediately when they can’t detect a pulse.

Prosecutor LeeAnn Bell emphasized in her rebuttal statement that if the officers had simply repositioned Floyd onto his side, as multiple policies dictate, he would probably still be alive.

Sertich spoke of the “dangerous” jobs police officers have, how they “go to work and act with courage” and are called upon to make “split-second decisions.” “This case isn’t about those officers,” she said.

Kueng, Lane and Thao weren’t dealing with a split-second decision. “It was 569 seconds,” Sertich said, referring to the 9 minutes 29 seconds Chauvin pressed his knees into Floyd’s neck and back. “They did nothing.”