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Federal judge denies mistrial for Chauvin accomplices

Judge Paul Magnuson did take issue with prosecutors' trial strategy against Tou Thao, Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane but upheld their convictions.

ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) — The federal judge who presided over a civil rights trial stemming from the murder of George Floyd declined to overrule jurors’ convictions of three former Minneapolis police officers on Tuesday, but had choice words for prosecutors in his ruling. 

Judge Paul Magnuson found that while he had “admonished the prosecution regarding leading questions and repetitive evidence” during the joint trial of Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng in February, the conduct he cautioned on was not sufficient to have a prejudicial effect warranting a mistrial. 

“Cases finding prosecutorial misconduct sufficient to warrant a mistrial are rare,” Magnuson wrote. “In most such cases, the prosecutor’s conduct is egregious.”

He added, however, that the trial strategy of Assistant U.S. Attorneys LeeAnn Bell, Manda Sertich and Samantha Trepel “often seemed vindictive and overbearing” and was “frighteningly close to that line of overzealous prosecution.” 

Thao, Lane and Kueng were convicted late in February of violating Floyd’s civil rights during his deadly arrest in May 2020, when their fellow officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for several minutes until well after he fell unconscious. Lane and Kueng, both rookie officers, aided Chauvin in holding Floyd down while Thao, a nine-year veteran of the department, kept an increasingly distressed crowd of bystanders away from his colleagues. 

Chauvin was also charged with violating Floyd’s civil rights, along with violating the rights of a 14-year-old boy he allegedly beat with a flashlight and held down by the neck in 2017. Following his second-degree murder conviction for killing Floyd, Chauvin took a deal in December to plead guilty to violating Floyd’s rights in exchange for dismissal of charges related to the 2017 incident. 

Chauvin faces a sentence of up to 25 years in federal prison if the plea deal is approved as it stands, though tax evasion charges against him and former wife Kellie Chauvin are still pending. He has also appealed his murder conviction.

Thao, Kueng and Lane are set for a state trial this summer, and sentencing in the federal case after that trial concludes. All three face charges of aiding and abetting murder.

Magnuson questioned the decision to bring federal charges against the former officers in the first place. Justice Department policies, he wrote, should have counted the former officers’ pending charges in state court against the case for bringing federal charges. “The Government’s prosecution here raises significant questions, but those questions are for the executive branch, not the judiciary, to resolve," the judge wrote.

Professor Rick Petry, of the Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, said that while Magnuson’s concerns weren’t controlling in a legal sense, they could be a bellwether for sentencing. 

“Clearly, Judge Magnuson’s not pleased with the government. I think that’s the clearest message that you can take away from it,” he said. Recent changes to the ways judges are required to apply sentencing guidelines, he said, mean that Magnuson has more leeway to decide the officers’ sentences. 

“This is an interesting dynamic,” he said. “You have a situation where a man was killed, that’s not in dispute. There’s no dispute about what caused it — it just comes down to this very fine point as to whether everybody’s conduct was willful.” That, along with Kueng and Lane’s inexperience, could affect Magnuson’s decision, he said. 

“On the one hand, I understand what he’s saying,” Petry added. “But, if you take it out of the context of these being police officers, and you make them gang members, for example, and they killed somebody … we wouldn’t be having this conversation.” 

Petry was warier of speculating about the possibility of an appeal, but said the scarcity of cases such as this could work against prosecutors. Petry noted that the Eighth Circuit “has been very reluctant to apply a standard saying that a police officer violated a constitutional right if there wasn’t already some sort of case that says, 'hey, you can’t do this.'” 

It’s unlikely, Petry said, that the Eighth Circuit would rule differently than Magnuson on the sufficiency of evidence, and could even argue that defense attorneys have waived prosecutorial misconduct claims. Even if they hadn’t, he said, he’d be surprised if the appellate court thinks more of those arguments than Magnuson did. “I just don’t think that’s going to happen,” he said. 

Attorneys for Thao, Kueng and Lane either did not return requests for comment or declined to comment for this story. The office of U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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