MINNEAPOLIS (CN) — The former Minneapolis police officer convicted of murdering George Floyd went to federal court Tuesday morning, where he and three former colleagues were arraigned on civil rights charges.
Former officers Derek Chauvin, Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng each entered not-guilty pleas to the three civil rights charges levied against them before their attorneys spent the morning discussing discovery issues and whether Chauvin should be tried alone.
Chauvin, who was convicted of second-degree murder in April for Floyd's May 2020 death, appeared virtually from the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Oak Park Heights for the arraignment. He and his three former colleagues now face charges in federal court for violating Floyd’s constitutional rights during his deadly arrest, in which Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes, killing him.
Chauvin has also been separately indicted for his alleged conduct during the 2017 arrest of a 14-year-old Minneapolis boy. The indictment alleges that Chauvin pinned the teenager before striking him repeatedly in the head with his flashlight.
Tuesday’s hearing, while lengthy, involved little argument. The parties resolved a series of discovery and deadline questions without incident, but Chauvin’s murder conviction was central to the hearing’s key point of debate: whether the four officers should be tried together.
Lane, Kueng and Thao all played roles in Floyd's deadly arrest, with Lane and Kueng helping Chauvin to hold the Black man down for over nine minutes while Thao held increasingly concerned bystanders away from the scene.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Tony Leung pointed out that joinder is the norm rather than the exception in federal trials, a contention agreed to by Assistant U.S. Attorney Manda Sertich, who is prosecuting the case.
Attorneys for Thao, Kueng and Lane each argued that Chauvin’s presence in the courtroom with their clients would be prejudicial.
“This is a unique case. I doubt if you’ll find anybody in that jury panel, in the jury pool, I should say, who do not know that Derek Chauvin was convicted of killing George Floyd,” Lane’s attorney Earl Gray said. “Now, that’s substantially prejudicial in this case because Derek Chauvin is charged in every one of these three counts.”
“We should not be saddled and branded with his conviction of murder under these same facts,” Gray continued. “Although there’s different words in this indictment, the facts are going to be pretty much the same.”
Thao’s attorney, Robert Paule, took a similar tack. He also argued that evidence the government would need to introduce for Chauvin’s case would not necessarily appear in the case against Thao, rendering that evidence irrelevant and prejudicial.
“I think the jury would have a difficult time sorting things out, and that’s all to the prejudice toward my client,” he said.
Sertich was brief in dismissing both arguments. Previous knowledge of Chauvin’s conviction and the circumstances of Floyd’s death, she said, wouldn’t go away if the man himself left the courtroom. “Any juror who’s sitting there and knows that, will know that whether or not Mr. Chauvin is sitting in the courtroom,” the prosecutor said.
“I also want to be clear that this will not involve additional evidence, no matter whether Mr. Chauvin is there or not,” Sertich added. “No matter what, the government is going to have to prove that Mr. Chauvin was engaging in an unlawful use of force.”
She also said jury instructions would be sufficient: “It is going to be clear based on the instructions to the jury that this is not a murder case…. I actually feel confident that the defense will also make that distinction, that those are not the charges here.”
Kueng, Lane and Thao are currently set to go to trial on aiding-and-abetting charges related to Floyd’s murder in state court together, having had their cases severed from Chauvin’s in January. Prosecutors and Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill agreed in May to push their trial to March 2022 pending the resolution of federal court proceedings.
None of the attorneys argued that Thao, Kueng and Lane should be tried separately from each other, but Sertich pointed out that Paule’s arguments on a different question seemed to gesture that way. Gray and Thomas Plunkett, who represents Kueng, took issue earlier in the hearing with language in the indictment saying that their clients had been police officers starting in December 2019.
Gray argued that Lane had only worked four days outside the supervision of a training officer. “A law officer with four days on the job is less apt to intervene-- and what’s amazing about Mr. Lane’s case is that he did attempt to intervene, at least twice, and he did attempt to resuscitate Mr. Floyd,” he said.
“The statement is unnecessary for the indictment, it’s wrong, and it’s substantially prejudicial," Gray added.
Plunkett agreed, cracking a dry joke on the topic.
“Mr. Gray’s client was considerably more experienced than Mr. Kueng, with four days of experience,” he said before adopting Gray’s opinion that the indictment should reflect their clients’ inexperience. “Since this is going to be a factual dispute, apparently, at the trial, to then have the court read it to the jury would be quite prejudicial.”
Sertich disagreed with the defense attorneys’ premise, pointing out that regardless of the time spent under training officers, Lane and Kueng had been sworn in as Minneapolis police officers in December 2019. “These accurate and factual dates of employment – it’s hard to see that there’d be an argument made that those are inflammatory or unfairly prejudicial,” she said.
“To say that they had these three or four shifts, that would be beyond their field training…. They had been on numerous calls between December of 2019 and May of 2020,” she added.
Leung took no position on the issue during the hearing, but made comments sympathetic to Sertich’s position. “It’s been a long time since I was in baby judge school,” the magistrate cracked, “but when we’re sworn in, we’re a judge, and then we go to baby judge school afterwards.”
Foreshadowing later arguments about severance, Paule pointed out during the hearing that Thao could fall victim to Lane and Kueng’s efforts to cite inexperience as a way to distance themselves from Chauvin.
“It seems pretty clear that Mr. Kueng and Mr. Lane will be seeking to distinguish their clients – and that’s a nice way of putting it – from my client as less experienced,” he said. “Clearly the stage is set with a kind of antagonism.”
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