Prosecutor: Cops could have stopped Chauvin, saved George Floyd

The men face federal charges in Floyd's 2020 killing while in police custody

J. Alexander Kueng, from left, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao
This combination of photos provided by the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office in Minnesota on June 3, 2020, shows J. Alexander Kueng, from left, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao charged with violating George Floyd’s constitutional rights.
Hennepin County Sheriff's Office via AP

Updated 1 p.m.

A federal prosecutor told jurors Monday morning that officers Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane could have saved George Floyd's life in 2020, but they chose not to.

In opening arguments, prosecutor Samantha Trepel said officers are trained to help people in need, but the three didn't intervene as Floyd slowly died as then-officer Derek Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes.

"You’ll hear that the medical aid that would have saved George Floyd’s life was as simple as that, turning George Floyd on his side so his heart kept beating,” she told jurors.

Defense attorneys described Floyd's death as a tragedy, but not a crime by their clients.

“This case is about a tragic tale, about a rookie officer, less than three shifts into his career as a Minneapolis police officer, that was confronted with a complex rapidly unfolding set of circumstances,” Thomas Plunkett, Kueng’s attorney, told the court.

Plunkett described what happened as an institutional failure of the Minneapolis Police Department — inadequate training, Chauvin’s role as a superior on the scene and confidence in Chauvin, who was Kueng’s field training officer — along with a "confrontational" crowd.

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The three now ex-Minneapolis police officers are facing federal civil rights charges tied to Floyd’s killing. Thao and Kueng also face charges of failing to intervene with Chauvin’s treatment of Floyd. 

A screen grab of a police bodycam.
This image from video shows then-Minneapolis police officers Thomas Lane, left and J. Alexander Kueng, right, escorting George Floyd, center, to a police vehicle outside Cup Foods in Minneapolis, on May 25, 2020.
Court TV via AP, Pool, File
Testimony begins in trial of three former Mpls. cops

Trial security tight

A jury of 18, including six alternates, was seated in just one day of jury selection on Thursday. U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson is expecting to swear them in Monday morning. 

The jury consists of 10 women and eight men from across the state. A pool reporter in the courtroom during jury selection noted that 16 of the jurors appeared to be white and two appeared to be of Asian descent. 

Prosecutors and defense attorneys met with the judge on Friday morning to resolve pretrial issues, but did not open the hearings to the public. 

Security is high at the federal courthouse in downtown St. Paul, which is surrounded by tall fencing. The judge has restricted the number of people allowed in the seventh floor courtroom due to concerns about COVID-19.

Just a handful of family members and journalists are allowed in the courtroom proper each day. Some members of the media and the public are able to watch proceedings on closed-feed cameras in overflow rooms elsewhere in the courthouse. 

MPD Officers Federal Civil Rights Trial
Security fencing stretch the length of the Warren E. Burger Federal Building in downtown St. Paul as the federal civil rights trial for former Minneapolis police officers J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao begins.
Tim Evans for MPR News

On May 25, 2020, then-officers Lane and Kueng responded to a 911 call reporting that someone had tried to pass a counterfeit $20 bill at a south Minneapolis corner store. An employee pointed out Floyd, who was in the driver’s seat of an SUV across the street. Lane approached Floyd and almost immediately pulled out his firearm. 

After handcuffing Floyd, Lane and Kueng tried to force him into the back of a police squad. He resisted getting in, telling them he was claustrophobic. Chauvin arrived at the scene and took Floyd to the ground. 

Chauvin restrained Floyd by kneeling on his neck for more than nine minutes, even after Kueng reported that he didn’t have a pulse and Lane asked whether they should flip Floyd over. As bystanders gathered on a nearby sidewalk pleaded with officers to let Floyd up, Thao kept them at bay. Floyd died at the scene.  

Screenshot from body camera.
Body camera video from former Minneapolis police officer Tou Thao shows bystanders repeatedly plead with officers to get off George Floyd.
Courtesy of Hennepin County District Court file

Chauvin was convicted this spring in state court of murder and manslaughter for Floyd’s killing. He was sentenced to 22 1/2 years. He also pleaded guilty last month to violating Floyd’s civil rights in federal court but has not yet been sentenced. He’ll serve the state and federal prison sentences concurrently. 

The three former officers also face separate state charges for aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter. The judge overseeing that state case ordered last week for it to be moved to June 13.

The federal courts provided accommodations to jurors from outside the Twin Cities metro area during the trial. Judge Magnuson told jurors last week that he expects the trial to take about a month.