Friday, January 27, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Jury hears opening statements in federal trial of cops who helped arrest Floyd

Opening statements from prosecutors and two former officers involved in George Floyd’s arrest outlined three divergent theories of the case.

ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) — Jurors in the federal trial of three officers who assisted in the deadly arrest of George Floyd heard opening statements Monday. 

Attorneys from the Minnesota U.S. Attorney’s Office laid out their case against former Minneapolis police officers Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng, who responded alongside colleague Derek Chauvin to a forgery call and participated in Floyd’s fatal neck restraint. 

Immediately afterward, Thao’s attorney Robert Paule and Kueng’s attorney Thomas Plunkett laid out their perspectives on the case, in which both argued that a viral video did not show the full circumstances of Floyd’s arrest and death and Plunkett said his client was a victim of systemic failures by the Minneapolis Police Department. 

Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, died on Memorial Day 2020 after Chauvin knelt on his neck for over nine minutes. Kueng and Lane, who had first apprehended Floyd on suspicion of forgery, knelt on Floyd’s back and legs respectively, while Thao stood nearby and kept an increasingly distressed group of bystanders away. 

One of those bystanders posted a video she took of Floyd’s death, which quickly went viral and sparked protests around the globe. In Minneapolis, several days of confrontations with police at the city’s Third Precinct, where all four officers were based, ended with officers abandoning the precinct and protesters burning it down. Fires and property destruction died down after a few days, but protests continued for months following Floyd’s death. 

Samantha Trepel of acting U.S. Attorney Charles Kovats’ office made the prosecution’s opening statement against the three officers. She stressed the “in your custody is in your care” doctrine, and pointed to several points during Chauvin’s fatal restraint of Floyd during which the officers could have intervened. 

Trepel also sought to contravene the idea that Lane and Kueng, each of whom had only a few days on the job as fully sworn-in officers, could be less culpable by virtue of their inexperience.

“Each of these defendants wore the same badge and took the same oath,” she said. She also stressed that the pair had over a year of training under their belts, including on providing CPR and the dangers of keeping handcuffed subjects in the prone position. 

Trepel argued that while Lane’s efforts to provide CPR after paramedics removed Floyd from the scene had led prosecutors to bring one less charge against him, he hadn’t acted on concerns about Floyd’s safety when it counted. 

“After four minutes, defendant Lane asked, ‘should we roll him on his side?’” Trepel told jurors. “Like every MPD officer, he was trained, again and again, on the answer to that question. ‘Yes, you’ve got to.’” When Chauvin and Kueng disagreed, she said, Lane did nothing. Asking a second time and receiving no response, she said, yielded no more action. 

Paule, meanwhile, argued that bystander Darnell Frazier’s video of Floyd’s slow death told only a fraction of the story of events on May 25, 2020. He said that Floyd, when approached by Lane and told to put his hands on the steering wheel, instead reached into the center console of the vehicle he was in, where drugs and counterfeit bills were later found. He also noted Thao’s comments that the 38th and Chicago area was “Bloods territory,” and that at different points during his arrest Floyd had physically resisted officers and disobeyed commands. 

“The fact that Mr. Floyd lost his life under tragic circumstances, it is a tragedy,” Paule said. “But that does not mean that the actions of Mr. Thao were criminal.” 

ADVERTISEMENT

Plunkett, meanwhile, cast aspersions on the prosecution’s argument that all four officers shared a rank. Kueng had worked just one shift since completing his field training, he said, and Chauvin was his field training officer.

“You’ll find out through the evidence that the FTO has great control over a young officer’s future in the Minneapolis Police Department,” he said. “The recruit… can be terminated from the department at the FTO’s recommendation.”

Despite an MPD policy requiring four different FTOs to cover each new recruit, he said, Chauvin had been Kueng’s FTO for over half of his shifts. Both Kueng and Lane, he said, addressed Chauvin as “sir” during Floyd’s arrest. 

He also noted that while then-Police Chief Medaria Arradondo had written a “duty to intervene” policy implemented shortly before his tenure, no scenario-based training on that policy was ever conducted. 

Plunkett's critiques of MPD policy and administration represented the first time the department itself has been under fire before a jury since Floyd's death. Prosecutors leaned heavily on testimony by MPD senior staff during Chauvin's murder trial, and Plunkett said several of the witnesses from that trial would return.

The department is currently under "pattern-and-practice" investigations by both the Minnesota Department of Human Rights and the U.S. Department of Justice.

Lane’s attorney Earl Gray took his turn after a lunch break. With one fewer charge to defend his client against, Gray outlined several instances during Lane’s encounter with Floyd that he said showed Lane was not “deliberately indifferent” to Floyd’s well-being. 

“Mr. Lane, from the beginning of the time that he came into contact with George Floyd until the time that he walked out of that ambulance, he was totally concerned, and did everything he could possibly do, to help George Floyd,” Gray said. Calling his client a “gentle giant,” he drew attention to the fact that Lane was on his fifth day without FTOs. He also noted that Lane had asked Floyd and his friend Shawanda Hill whether he was “on something,” and that both denied it. 

“If he had said yes, the policy of the MPD would have been to take him to the hospital,” Gray said of Floyd. “But he denied it. He was indifferent to his own condition.” 

He also cited Lane’s questions about whether the officers should roll Floyd on his side, and his deference to Chauvin’s decisions not to.

“If they had hobbled him, he would be on his side and, no doubt, be alive today. That is what Thomas Lane learned at the academy,” Gray said. 

Lane, he said, would be testifying at the trial. It is unclear whether his codefendants will do the same. Chauvin opted out of testifying at his state-court trial. 

The trio of officers were arrested in June of 2020 and charged with aiding and abetting second- and third-degree murder. Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill split their trial from Chauvin’s last January, and federal indictments of all four officers followed close on the heels of Chauvin’s April murder conviction. The federal proceedings led Cahill to push Thao, Kueng and Lane’s state trial to June last week. 

Paule, Gray and Plunkett asked Magnuson to separate their clients’ trials from Chauvin’s last year, arguing that standing trial alongside a convicted murderer could only hurt their cases. The judge denied that request, but Chauvin entered a plea agreement in mid-December, mooting the issue. Whether the former officer will make an appearance is now an open question; his plea deal made no mention of testimony for or against his onetime colleagues. While all three attorneys name-checked some of the witnesses they planned to bring, Chauvin’s name did not come up in that context. 

Access to the courtroom in St. Paul’s Warren E. Burger Federal Building is restricted, with U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson citing Covid-19 protocols. Just a few reporters are allowed into the courtroom itself, while other journalists work from a room usually used for prospective jurors, following a Zoom feed of the proceedings. Security is also a concern – 10-foot fences have been erected around the building, and the force of U.S. Marshals who usually guard the building have been supplemented with bulletproof-vested Homeland Security officers. 

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.

Loading
Loading...