Three former Minneapolis police officers charged with violating George Floyd’s civil rights did nothing to intervene as fellow officer Derek Chauvin pinned the Black man’s neck to the street, a prosecutor told jurors on Monday, as the ex-officers’ federal trial began.
“For second after second, minute after minute, these three CPR-trained defendants stood and knelt next to … Chauvin as he … killed George Floyd right in front of them,” federal prosecutor Samantha Trepel said during opening statements.
J Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao are broadly charged with depriving Floyd of his civil rights while acting under government authority.
All three are charged for failing to provide Floyd with medical care. Thao and Kueng face an additional count for failing to stop Chauvin, who was convicted of murder and manslaughter in state court last year.
Trepel, from the US Department of Justice’s civil rights division, said the defendants had broken their oath with a callous indifference to Floyd. She said video captured how Kueng at times seemed more preoccupied with some gravel lodged in the tire of the nearby police car than the man beneath him repeatedly saying, “I can’t breathe.”
Defence lawyers have said the three defendants had a right and a duty to arrest Floyd on suspicion he used a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes, and were not criminally liable for Chauvin’s conduct.
“The death of Mr Floyd is indeed a tragedy,” Robert Paule, a lawyer for Thao, said in his opening statement on Monday. “However, a tragedy is not a crime.”
Tom Plunkett, the lawyer for Kueng, highlighted the rookie status of his client and Lane, and said both men deferred to Chauvin and called him “sir”.
“You’ll see and hear officer Chauvin call all of the shots,” said Plunkett, who also hammered at what he called the Minneapolis Police Department’s lack of training, including on intervention against the unreasonable use of force.
Legal experts have said prosecutors must prove Kueng, Lane and Thao willfully violated Floyd’s constitutional rights, while defence lawyers are likely to blame Chauvin for Floyd’s murder, which was videotaped and triggered worldwide protests, violence and a re-examination of racism and policing.
Floyd died on May 25, 2020, after Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck for nine and a half minutes while the 46-year-old was facedown, handcuffed and gasping for air. Kueng knelt on Floyd’s back and Lane held down his legs. Thao kept bystanders from intervening.
Lawyers for the Floyd family have said bystander video shows that the three officers “directly contributed to [Floyd’s] death and failed to intervene to stop the senseless murder”.
Last week, 18 people were swiftly chosen for the jury; 12 will deliberate and six will be alternates. Two of the jurors — one expected to deliberate and one alternate — appear to be of Asian descent. The rest appear to be white. The jurors include people from the Twin Cities area, the suburbs and southern Minnesota. The court declined to provide demographic information.
Federal prosecutions of officers involved in on-duty killings are rare. Prosecutors face a high legal standard to show that an officer willfully deprived someone of their constitutional rights. Essentially, prosecutors must prove that the officers knew what they were doing was wrong, but did it anyway.
The indictment charges Thao, who is Hmong American; Lane, who is white; and Kueng, who is Black, with willfully depriving Floyd of the right to be free from an officer’s deliberate indifference to his medical needs. The indictment says the three men saw Floyd clearly needed medical care and failed to aid him.
Thao and Kueng are charged with a second count alleging they willfully violated Floyd’s right to be free from unreasonable seizure by not stopping Chauvin as he knelt on Floyd’s neck. It’s not clear why Lane is not mentioned in that count, but evidence shows he asked twice whether Floyd should be rolled on his side.
Both counts allege the officers’ actions resulted in Floyd’s death.
US District Judge Magnuson told jurors that the trial could last four weeks. It is not known whether any of the three officers will testify. It is also not clear whether Chauvin will testify, though many experts who spoke to The Associated Press news agency believe he would not.
Lane, Kueng, and Thao also face a separate state trial in June on charges they aided and abetted both murder and manslaughter.