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George Floyd civil rights case heads to jury  

Prosecutors and defense attorneys for three officers charged with violating George Floyd's civil rights presented their closing statements before being sent home by heavy snow.

ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) — Attorneys on all sides of the federal civil rights case against three former Minneapolis police officers involved in the deadly arrest of George Floyd gave their closing statements Tuesday. Jury instructions were delayed to Wednesday due to a snow emergency, but are set for first thing in the morning, with deliberations following. 

The trio – Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane – are accused of violating Floyd’s civil rights by failing to stop their colleague Derek Chauvin from kneeling on his neck for several minutes in May 2020. Thao and Kueng face an additional charge for failing to provide Floyd with medical attention. Lane, who provided CPR to Floyd after he left the scene, faces only the first charge. 

Floyd’s death in law enforcement custody – and a viral video taken by a bystander – sparked protests and riots around the globe in the early summer of 2020, including several nights of unrest in Minneapolis that peaked with the destruction of the officers’ base of operations, the city’s third police precinct. 

Assistant U.S. Attorney Manda Sertich delivered the prosecution’s closing argument. She said the officers knew Floyd was in distress, but failed to do anything to help him. 

“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 or help George Floyd,” she said. 

Sertich pushed against the idea that a gathering group of bystanders recording Floyd’s death and pleading with Thao and Chauvin to help him threatened the officers and prevented them from providing CPR or other aid. She also targeted Thao, who spent much of Floyd’s restraint keeping those bystanders out of the street where Chauvin, Kueng and Lane were holding Floyd, for mocking Floyd to the bystanders rather than stopping his colleague. 

“Even while watching a police officer killing a man in front of them, these Good Samaritans stayed nonviolent and compliant,” she said. The defense, she said, was arguing that the bystanders should have simply looked away. U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson sustained defense objections when she said that appeared to be the officers’ chosen conduct. 

On the defense side, attorneys’ arguments varied somewhat. Robert Paule, Thao’s attorney, argued that Floyd’s death was “a tragedy,” but not a crime. He instead posited that Floyd died as a result of drug use and the disputed condition known as excited delirium, which Lane hypothesized on scene. The syndrome, recognized by the American College of Emergency Physicians but not the American Medical Association, is often cited in cases where Black men die in police custody and features symptoms such as “superhuman” strength, obliviousness to pain and a tendency to break glass. 

He also pointed out that Thao never touched Floyd, arguing that prosecutors could not prove that he willfully violated Floyd’s rights since he was focused on the bystanders. Chauvin’s neck restraint, he said, was consistent with several photos from MPD training, despite the department’s onetime training czar’s claims to the contrary. 

Meanwhile Tom Plunkett, Kueng’s attorney, focused heavily on his client’s relationship with Chauvin, who had been Kueng’s field training officer for much of the year prior to Floyd’s death. Kueng, who had just finished his field training period and was still a probationary hire, was “under the influence” of the 19-year veteran and hadn’t been adequately trained on the department’s policy stating that officers had a duty to intervene in misconduct, Plunkett said.  

Plunkett also went after some of the prosecution’s witnesses, including onetime MPD training director Inspector Katie Blackwell and the department’s senior-most officer, homicide lieutenant Richard Zimmerman. Blackwell, he said, did not return his private investigator’s phone calls. She was a longtime friend of Chauvin’s and had recommended him to be a field training officer in the first place. 

He called Zimmerman “a venerable grandfather figure,” but said the bystander video “changed how he saw and perceived the events that night” and called into question some of Zimmerman’s claims from an interview with the FBI. Claims that officers lied to him when he arrived on the scene and asked to turn off their body cameras, he said, were not borne out by footage from those cameras. 

Plunkett ultimately asked jurors not to succumb to “mob rule,” a phrase also used by Lane’s attorney, Earl Gray. In his closing argument, Gray called Lane’s behavior “nothing but innocent conduct by a rookie officer” and railed against the charges brought against his client as political. 

“Why was he indicted? You know the answer. Politics! As Mr. Plunkett said, mob rule and politics,” Gray said, over objections from prosecutors. A few months before Floyd’s death, Gray noted, Lane had received a community service award from then-Chief Medaria Arradondo. “Five months later, he terminated him without an investigation. Talk about being ruled by the mob… it’s very dangerous now to be a cop,” Gray said. 

He also pointed to pills found in the squad car the officers pulled Floyd into as evidence that Floyd was high and potentially died from drug use. Floyd was an opioid addict, as his girlfriend Courteney Ross testified during Chauvin’s murder trial, and while he had fentanyl and methamphetamine in his system after his death, he was known to have a tolerance. 

Assistant U.S. Attorney LeeAnn Bell touched on Gray’s drug claims in her rebuttal. “Pills found in the car cannot be in your body,” she said. As to Thao’s argument that he’d never touched Floyd, she said, that didn’t contradict a failure to intervene. 

Court adjourned late in the afternoon due to a snow emergency declared by Chief U.S. District Judge John Tunheim. St. Paul sustained heavy snowfall all day Tuesday and the weather is expected to continue into the night.

Magnuson said he’d issue jury instructions at 9 a.m. Wednesday, and jurors could begin deliberating at 9:30.

Categories / Civil Rights, Criminal, Trials

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