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Jury selection starts in federal trial over George Floyd arrest

Former officers Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng face civil rights charges, while convicted murderer Derek Chauvin has already taken a plea deal.

MINNEAPOLIS (CN) — Jury selection began Thursday in the federal civil rights case against three former Minneapolis police officers who participated in the deadly arrest of George Floyd alongside Derek Chauvin. 

Tou Thao and J. Alexander Kueng have pleaded not guilty two counts of deprivation of rights under color of law. Fellow officer Thomas Lane faces one; he was left out of one count alleging that Thao and Kueng failed to intervene in Chauvin’s use of force. 

Body camera footage from the incident shows Lane asking Chauvin whether the officers should roll Floyd on his side, and performing CPR after Floyd was taken away from the scene by EMTs. Lane’s attorney, Earl Gray, has argued that his client was working to save Floyd’s life, and both he and Kueng’s attorney, Thomas Plunkett, have pointed to the fact that the officers had spent just days on the job at the time of Floyd’s death. 

Thao’s attorneys Robert and Natalie Paule, meanwhile, have stressed that their client never touched Floyd, instead standing on the sidelines and keeping bystanders away from Chauvin, Kueng and Thao as they knelt on the 46-year-old Black man. 

Prosecutors with acting Minnesota U.S. Attorney Charles Kovats’ office have kept tight-lipped on their plans for the trial, but will have to show that Thao, Kueng and Lane willfully violated Floyd’s rights by failing to address obvious medical needs, a more stringent standard than the one they face in state court. In those proceedings, they must only be shown to have aided and abetted Chauvin in assaulting Floyd. 

Notably absent from the proceedings will be Chauvin himself. The former officer initially pleaded not guilty to federal charges, but took a plea deal in December, pleading guilty to one count of violating Floyd’s civil rights in order to ensure dismissal of a separate set of charges alleging that he violated a Black teenager’s rights in 2017 by kneeling on him and beating him around the head with a flashlight. He now awaits sentencing; prosecutors are seeking a 25-year sentence in federal prison, a slight increase from the 22 years Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill sentenced him to on state murder charges. 

Chauvin could still appear at the federal trial if he is called to testify. 

Another key witness from Chauvin’s state court trial will definitely not take the stand: a young girl who came to Cup Foods on 38th Street and Chicago Avenue with her cousin, Darnella Frazier, during Floyd’s arrest. The girl gave brief testimony for the prosecution at Chauvin’s April trial, but Senior U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson decided not to permit her testimony in federal court. Frazier, who filmed the video of Floyd’s death that rapidly went viral and sparked global protests, is under no such restriction. 

The other officers’ state-court trial was delayed once again on Wednesday following a joint motion to stay. It is now scheduled for June 13, per an order from Cahill. 

Prior to Chauvin's plea agreement, attorneys for Kueng, Lane and Thao pushed to split their clients’ trial from Chauvin’s, unsuccessfully arguing that his convictions of second- and third-degree murder in state court would unfairly prejudice their clients. 

“We should not be saddled and branded with his conviction of murder under these same facts,” Gray told U.S. Magistrate Judge Tony Leung in September. “Although there’s different words in this indictment, the facts are going to be pretty much the same.” 

Leung denied that motion in November, finding that the charges against Kueng, Lane and Thao were too closely intertwined with those against Chauvin to allow separate trials. 

While Leung presided over several preliminary matters in the case, the trial itself is being held before Magnuson, a Ronald Reagan appointee who served as chief judge of the District of Minnesota from 1994 to 2001. 

Cameras will not be allowed in the courtroom for the federal trial, apart from a Zoom feed streamed to media in a room of the courthouse usually used for prospective jurors. That’s a departure from recent high-profile trials in Minnesota state courts, including those of Chauvin, Kimberly Potter and the upcoming state trial of Kueng, Lane and Thao themselves. 

Magnuson has also set a tight timeline for the trial, saying he plans on selecting all 12 jurors and six alternates in just two days and for the trial in total to last four weeks. Jury selection took two weeks in Chauvin’s state trial.

The 256-person jury pool hails from all corners of Minnesota, leading some to speculate that they may look more kindly on the officers than a jury from deep-blue Hennepin County would. In jury selection on Thursday morning, however, several of the first 30 prospective jurors said they were Hennepin County residents, and almost all of them came from the seven-county Twin Cities metro area. 

The trial is being held at the federal courthouse in St. Paul, where Magnuson keeps his chambers, much to the chagrin of some St. Paul officials. Deputy Mayor Jaime Tincher wrote Chief U.S. District Judge John Tunheim in November asking him to consider moving the trial to the courthouse’s counterpart in Minneapolis, and Police Chief Todd Axtell estimated at the time that the trial could cost the city millions of dollars. “I am beyond disappointed that this trial will be held outside the city where the incident occurred,” Axtell said. 

Concerns about security have led officials to erect chain-link fences around the courthouse, similar to those used at the Hennepin County Government Center during Chauvin’s trial. The courthouse has been closed for all other proceedings. 

The courthouse was quiet Thursday morning, however; subzero temperatures and the lower-profile nature of Thao, Lane and Kueng’s case may have contributed to keeping protesters at home. That drew a stark contrast to the high-drama, live-streamed trials of Chauvin and Potter, who was convicted of manslaughter in December for the killing of Daunte Wright in the midst of Chauvin’s April trial.

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