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Chauvin co-defendants lose bid for separate civil rights trial

Four former Minneapolis police officers are likely to go to trial together on civil rights charges stemming from the death of George Floyd.

ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) — Derek Chauvin will likely stand trial alongside three colleagues on federal civil rights charges stemming from the murder of George Floyd after a magistrate judge denied a collection of motions to sever. 

U.S. Magistrate Judge Tony Leung in Minnesota denied motions from former Minneapolis police officers Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng seeking to separate their cases from Chauvin’s. All four face charges for violating Floyd’s civil rights during his deadly arrest in May of 2020, during which Chauvin was shown kneeling on Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes in a widely-circulated video. 

“Although Chauvin, Thao, Kueng and Lane do not all face the same charges, there is a significant amount of overlap and interplay between the charges,” Leung wrote. “In order for the government to prove Thao and Kueng guilty of willfully failing to intervene to stop Chauvin’s use of unreasonable force… it will need to prove Chauvin used unreasonable force.” 

The magistrate acknowledged the other officers’ arguments that Chauvin’s standing murder conviction in state court would prejudice their cases, but said they were insufficient to justify severance.

“There can be no doubt that the death of Floyd, as well as Chauvin’s state-court trial and conviction, received worldwide media coverage and attracted substantial public attention,” he wrote. “But, at this stage of the proceedings, Thao, Kueng, and Lane have not met their burden to show that a joint trial with Chauvin will infringe upon their right to a fair trial or result in a clear likelihood of prejudice.”

The order was followed by a flurry of smaller orders, most dealing with discovery issues and scheduling. In one, Leung explained his reasoning for not addressing another issue that came up at a Sept. 14 hearing: whether Lane and Kueng qualified as police officers while still under the supervision of a training officer. Attorneys for the officers had taken issue with language in the indictment saying that their clients had become police officers in December of 2019, arguing that they had spent less than a week on patrol without training officer supervision. 

Leung found that the existing language was appropriate. “Notwithstanding their arguments, defendants themselves appear to acknowledge—albeit with qualification and careful language—that they became police officers in December 2019,” he wrote. 

“The onus will be on the government at trial to prove defendants’ status as police officers in 2019. The government has made clear its intention to do so,” he continued. “This brings the court to its second point: when defendants began working as police officers is relevant to the charges against them. So long as the language is relevant, it cannot be stricken as surplusage.”

Chauvin was convicted of second- and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in April. He has appealed his conviction, and a recent Minnesota Supreme Court decision means his third-degree murder conviction is likely to be overturned on appeal. Alongside the federal charges stemming from Floyd’s death, Chauvin faces civil rights charges for an incident in which he allegedly pinned down a teenager and struck him repeatedly in the head with a flashlight. Trial dates in both federal cases have yet to be determined. 

Thao, Kueng and Lane are also set to stand trial together in state court for their involvement in Floyd’s deadly arrest. Those proceedings have been delayed, however, pending the resolution of the federal case. 

A representative of acting U.S. Attorney Charles Kovats’ office declined to comment, as did attorneys Thomas Plunkett and Robert Paule, who represent Kueng and Thao, respectively. Attorneys for the two other officers did not respond to requests for comment.

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