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Former Minneapolis officers found guilty of violating George Floyd’s civil rights

FILE - This image from video shows Minneapolis Police Officers Thomas Lane, left and J. Alexander Kueng, right, escorting George Floyd, center, to a police vehicle outside Cup Foods in Minneapolis, on May 25, 2020. (AP)
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ST. PAUL, Minn. — Three former Minneapolis police officers who were at the scene with Derek Chauvin as he pressed his knee into George Floyd’s neck were convicted Thursday of violating Floyd’s civil rights in a case that is likely to increase scrutiny over how officers are trained to intervene with rogue colleagues.

Prosecutors had argued that former officers J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas K. Lane and Tou Thao knew Floyd was in medical danger beneath Chauvin’s knee but put their “discomfort in questioning a colleague” above their sworn duty to save a life.

After a month-long trial that cast a harsh light on police training and practices in Minneapolis, a jury found Kueng, Lane and Thao guilty of violating Floyd’s civil rights by failing to provide him medical aid. Kueng and Thao were also found guilty of failing to intervene with Chauvin. The jury found that the actions of all three men caused Floyd’s death.

U.S. District Judge Paul A. Magnuson, who presided over the case, did not order the officers to be taken into custody, citing a separate trial scheduled for June on state charges of aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death. Magnuson said he would announce sentencing in the civil rights case at a later date.

The courtroom was silent as Magnuson read the verdicts for each former officer. A limited number of friends and family of the former officers had sat in the socially distanced courtroom during the proceedings, but on Wednesday, just one woman sat behind the defense tables. Thao and Kueng showed no visible reaction as they were found guilty. Lane shook his head and appeared to toss something on the table in reaction to the decision, causing a noise that echoed across the courtroom.

At least one of the female jurors appeared to be crying as the verdicts were read.

In a statement, civil rights attorney Ben Crump and other members of the legal team representing the Floyd family called the decision “another important chapter in our journey for justice” for Floyd.

“These officers tried to devise any excuse that could let them wash the blood from their hands, but following these verdicts, George’s blood will forever stain them,” Crump said. “Today’s guilty verdicts should serve as the guiding example of why police departments across America should expand and prioritize instruction on an officer’s duty to intervene and recognize when a fellow officer is using excessive force.”

Floyd’s brother, Philonise, spoke to reporters afterward, his eyes wet with tears. “I feel like I can breathe again,” he said. But he added: "This is just accountability. It can never mean justice because I can never get George back.”

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

But acting U.S. attorney Charles Kovats called the jury’s decision “a reminder that all sworn law enforcement, regardless of rank or seniority … have a duty to intervene.”

“It’s a fundamental duty of policing … a duty followed every day by police officers in communities around the United States, often under very difficult circumstances,” Kovats said at a news conference after the verdicts. “Officers Thao, Kueng and Lane on that day failed to fulfill this duty, and as a result, George Floyd senselessly died. That is why they were charged. That is why they were convicted.”

Injustice in life and oppression in death: How systemic racism shaped George Floyd’s life and hobbled his ambition

The jury of eight women and four men — who appeared to be mostly White — deliberated for 13 hours beginning Wednesday. Unlike in Chauvin’s state murder trial last year, the federal jury included people from across the state of Minnesota, not just Hennepin County, where Floyd was killed — which had prompted some observers to question whether jurors might be more sympathetic toward the former officers.

The jury’s decision came after about six hours of closing arguments Tuesday in which prosecutors and defense attorneys presented their dueling views of a case that was 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 were 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.

“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, pointing to the numerous videos of the fatal May 2020 arrest that had 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 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.”

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 facedown 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 disregarded 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 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 whether 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 said it was 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 the 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.

Chauvinpleaded guilty in December to the federal charges and is awaiting sentencing. Many wondered if Chauvin would be called to testify against his former colleagues — a scenario that prosecutors seemed to prepare for, judging by language in Chauvin’s plea agreement.

In that agreement, signed by the former officer, Chauvin admitted 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 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.

Prosecutors began presenting their case Jan. 24 with a litany of video that captured the deadly police encounter with Floyd, 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.

Each of three officers mounted an individual defense, and Magnuson, who oversaw the proceedings, limited prosecutors from asking the former officers questions that would lead them to render judgment on their fellow defendants — though he allowed questioning about what the officers observed.

The defense teams called a combined 11 witnesses over five days — including all three former officers and a use-of-force expert who testified that the MPD’s duty to intervene policy was “overly simplistic” and did not adequately prepare officers to challenge veterans over excessive force or other wrongdoing.

But that expert, Steve Ijames, a former assistant police chief in Springfield, Mo., also testified that Chauvin should have stopped using force when Floyd was no longer resisting and affirmed that one of the other officers could have repositioned Floyd so he could breathe.

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

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 said the former officers probably would receive a less severe sentence. Prosecutors declined to comment Thursday on what their sentencing recommendation will be to Magnuson, who ultimately has discretion on the former officers’ punishment.

In December, prosecutors recommended that Chauvin serve 300 months — 25 years — in federal prison, though Magnuson has yet to sign off on that deal. Experts believe the sentences for Kueng, Lane and Thao will be less.

After the verdict, more than a dozen members of the prosecution team gathered in the lobby of the federal courthouse to speak to the reporters. Many were visibly emotional. Assistant U.S. Attorney LeeAnn Bell, one of the lead prosecutors, thanked the bystanders who testified in the case, as well as members of Floyd’s family.

“George Floyd was a human being,” Bell said. “He deserved to be treated as such. … My hope, and the hope of our team, is that today’s verdict will bring a measure of justice.”

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