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Jury deliberates in case of former Minneapolis police officers accused of violating George Floyd’s civil rights

A headstone shows George Floyd's name in the "Say Their Names" cemetery at George Floyd Square in Minneapolis. (Kerem Yucel/AFP/Getty Images)

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The fate of three former Minneapolis police officers accused of violating George Floyd’s civil rights when they did “nothing” to stop Derek Chauvin from pressing his knee into the man’s neck is now in the hands of a jury.

After roughly four weeks of testimony, jurors began deliberations Wednesday in a case that is likely to test the question of what responsibility police officers have in reining in the bad behavior of colleagues.

Prosecutors say former officers J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas K. Lane and Tou Thao knew Floyd was in medical danger beneath Chauvin’s knee, as they heard the man repeatedly begging for breath before losing consciousness but put their “discomfort in questioning a colleague” above their sworn duty to save a life.

The former officers, each of whom took the stand in their own defense, have said they were deferring to Chauvin, the senior officer at the scene, unsure whether he was using unreasonable force and that they relied on his experience to guide what they claimed was a chaotic scene. They have also pointed a finger at the Minneapolis Police Department, claiming inadequate and confusing training, and questioning why Chauvin was allowed to train young officers like Kueng.

The jury of eight women and four men — who appear to be mostly White — listened to about six hours of closing arguments Tuesday as prosecutors and defense attorneys presented their dueling views of a case that is far more complex than the trial mounted last year against Chauvin, who was convicted of state charges of murder and manslaughter and sentenced to 22½ years in prison.

Kueng, Lane and Thao, who are also facing a June trial on state charges of aiding and abetting murder, are charged with what prosecutors say they didn’t do at the scene of Floyd’s fatal arrest — including getting Chauvin off the man, putting Floyd into a side recovery position to help him breathe and performing CPR when Floyd lost a pulse.

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

“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,” prosecutor Manda Sertich told jurors during closing arguments Tuesday, pointing to the numerous videos of the fatal May 2020 arrest that have been introduced into evidence.

But defense attorneys argued that 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.

Thomas Plunkett, an attorney for Kueng who has spent much of his defense case attacking policies and practices of the MPD, 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.”

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 upper back, Kueng at 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. During the trial, Thao and Kueng told the jurors they dismissed Floyd’s complaints about breathing because people often claimed “I can’t breathe” to avoid being arrested.

Lane recalled for the jury how 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. Prosecutors 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.

But Lane’s attorney, Earl Gray, in a fiery closing argument, repeatedly suggested it was unrealistic to think that two young officers like Lane and Kueng 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.”

In his testimony, Kueng recalled twice telling Chauvin that he couldn’t detect Floyd’s pulse and said he assumed Chauvin would check the pulse on Floyd’s neck — which he had been trained to know was more reliable — but the senior officer didn’t check and kept his position. He said he didn’t know if Chauvin was violating policy by kneeling on Floyd’s neck because he’d never been trained on the maneuver.

But prosecutors tried to cast doubt on Kueng’s claims that he wasn’t sure the scene was safe enough to reposition Floyd or render medical aid — pointing to the fact that video showed he had laughed at Chauvin telling Floyd that it takes “a heck of a lot oxygen to keep talking” as the man repeatedly told the officers he couldn’t breathe.

Kueng called it a “brief moment of levity” and insisted he detected no “serious medical condition” with Floyd even as he acknowledged he later couldn’t find the man’s pulse.

Thao, who held back bystanders as they urged the officers to check Floyd’s pulse and “get off” the man, acknowledged under prosecution questioning that he heard the concerns voiced by the onlookers about Floyd’s health but said he did not say anything to Chauvin or the other officers.

“I think I would trust a 19-year veteran to figure it out,” Thao said, referring to Chauvin, who was his partner that day.

Thao repeatedly told a jury that he never physically touched Floyd and played a “different role” at the scene. He said he relied on the officers who were restraining Floyd to monitor the man’s condition and believed that, because they weren’t performing CPR, Floyd was “fine.”

Echoing Kueng’s claim, Thao said he wasn’t sure whether Chauvin was violating policy when he pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck. His attorney Robert Paule introduced into evidence photos that had been given to Thao as a memento from his time in the police academy showing officers pressing their knees into a person’s neck during training — part of the overall defense strategy questioning policing practices in Minneapolis.

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 Floyd’s neck. All four officers were charged with failing to render medical aid to Floyd. Kueng, Lane and Thao each pleaded not guilty.

Chauvin, who is currently serving a 22½-year state murder sentence, pleaded guilty in December to the federal charges and is awaiting sentencing.

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

In their closing argument, prosecutors pointed out that all three former officers 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.

They emphasized that being a rookie officer or an officer with less experience was no excuse.