Rookie police officers Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng were the first on scene in south Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, after workers at a corner store reported that someone tried to pass a counterfeit $20 bill.
After they tried to wrestle George Floyd into the back of a squad car, veteran officer Derek Chauvin took Floyd to the ground and knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes while officer Tou Thao kept bystanders at bay. Floyd died at the scene.
Now the other three former Minneapolis police officers at the scene during Floyd’s killing are set to go on trial for violating George Floyd’s constitutional rights.
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These sorts of federal civil rights charges, known as “deprivation of rights under the color of law” are very uncommon. According to data from Syracuse University, there have only a few dozen cases charged over the past two decades.
The federal trial will be quite different from the state murder trial against Chauvin, said Mark Osler, a former federal prosecutor and law professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law.
“This trial is really important because it does present the question of the duty of officers on what they didn’t do, as opposed to reviewing the actions themselves,” Osler said. “How that is perceived by the jury and by the nation is going to be really interesting to watch.”
Kueng, Lane and Thao are charged with failing to provide Floyd with medical aid. Kueng and Thao also face charges that they failed to intervene with Chauvin’s use of force on Floyd. Prosecutors will need to prove that the former officers willfully deprived Floyd of his constitutional rights.
Each of the officers will likely have slightly different defenses, Osler said.
Legal observers say Lane’s case is the strongest. He asked Chauvin whether they should flip Floyd over. But Chauvin appeared to ignore him. Body camera video also captured Lane later assisting paramedics as they tried to save Floyd’s life.
Thao kept bystanders mostly on the sidewalk and away from the area where Chauvin was kneeling on Floyd. Kueng helped Chauvin hold Floyd down, but also checked his pulse.
It’s not clear whether Lane, Kueng or Thao will testify in their own defense. But going on trial without Chauvin could benefit them, Osler said.
“I think they’ll add to one another in the sense that they’re all going to blame Derek Chauvin as the primary actor here, maybe even someone they were scared or intimidated [by],” he said.
Jurors may also be influenced by the fact that both Lane and Kueng were rookie cops at the time of Floyd’s killing. Thao had served with the department for 11 years.
Prosecutors will likely want to convince jurors that the former officers had a limited time frame where they could act and that they chose not to, Osler said.
“They’re going to want to focus on what the harm was. This was a terrible killing of someone who was suspected, at most, of a pretty minor crime, and to center it on the underlying harm and that it took multiple actors to accomplish it,” Osler said.
The outcome of the federal trial of these former officers could change how prosecutors approach the upcoming state trial of these officers for aiding and abetting Chauvin in Floyd’s killing, said Angi Porter, a research fellow at Georgetown University Law Center.
“They want to do justice, but they also tend to negotiate because if they can avoid putting together all those resources to put on a whole trial, they will,” Porter said, adding that defendants who are convicted in the federal trial may also have more incentive to agree to a plea deal.
Porter attributes some of the recent prosecutions of police officers in Minnesota to efforts by state Attorney General Keith Ellison and federal prosecutors under the Biden administration. But she said these cases may not signal a broader commitment to police accountability in the criminal justice system.
“If Keith Ellison were not in the position he was in, I don’t think that we would have seen some of these prosecutions,” Porter said. “That actually sort of highlights that the shift is not necessarily institutional or systemic, but that the shift is really based on fortuitous circumstances.”
Floyd’s killing sparked unrest in the Twin Cities and calls for police accountability nationwide.
Recent convictions of police officers for on-duty killings of civilians is unprecedented, but largely due to public pressure, said Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil rights attorney and activist.
“Change has happened as a result of people consistently taking to the streets over the last several years and demonstrating and raising public awareness regarding police officers being able to kill people with impunity, and how unfair that process has been, not to mention deadly,” Levy Armstrong said.
Levy Armstrong said she’d like to see more changes to state law surrounding police use of force, and the creation of an independent body to investigate and prosecute these cases.
The federal trial isn’t attracting as much attention as Chauvin’s state trial, Levy Armstrong said, and restrictions on cameras in federal courtrooms will make it difficult for people in the community to follow this trial in detail.
Due to COVID-19, only four journalists and one sketch artist will be allowed in the courtroom at a time. Others can watch a closed feed from an overflow room. The judge will add six alternate jurors in case of a COVID outbreak. He has said he hopes to conclude the trial within two weeks.
The judge presiding over the state trial for the three former officers issued an order Wednesday moving that trial to June 13.