Three former Minneapolis police officers who were present at the scene of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020 just watched as he suffered a "slow, agonizing death," prosecutors said on Monday.
"Each made a conscious choice over and over again," Samantha Trepel, a special litigation counsel from the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, told the court on the first day of the federal trial of J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane, and Tou Thao. "They chose not to intervene and stop Chauvin as he killed a man. They chose not to protect George Floyd, the man they handcuffed."
Defense lawyers for the three men argued that the viral video of Floyd’s killing did not provide the entire picture, including what the officers were thinking in the moment and what cumulative actions they had taken. They also argued that one of the officers did not have adequate training.
Last May, Kueng, Lane, and Thao were indicted on federal charges that they deprived Floyd’s civil rights by failing to provide medical aid during his arrest. Floyd was violently restrained and killed by former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin, who crushed his neck with his knee for more than 9 minutes. Floyd, 46, died on May 25, 2020, after being handcuffed and gasping for air.
Thao and Kueng are also charged with violating Floyd's right to be free from unreasonable seizure after failing to intervene on Chauvin's use of unreasonable force. Federal civil rights violations that result in death are punishable by life in prison or even death, but these are extremely rare sentences.
Chauvin, who was indicted along with the other three, pleaded guilty to the federal charges last month. He was also convicted on state charges of murdering Floyd and is serving a 22-and-a-half-year sentence.
During Floyd’s arrest, Lane mentioned rolling Floyd to his side but did nothing to actually help him despite his training, prosecutors said in their opening statements, according to notes from pool reporters at the trial. Kueng, prosecutors said, rejected Lane’s suggestion, held down Floyd’s torso, and didn’t tell Chauvin to stop. Thao, meanwhile, ignored concerned bystanders’ pleas to help Floyd and blocked them from intervening.
"They continued applying force rather than reassessing the situation as they were trained,” Trepel told the court.
Judge Paul Magnuson said the trial is expected to last four weeks. The jury's decision in one of the highest-profile police cases in modern history could set a precedent in what role officers play in holding fellow law enforcement agents accountable.
Floyd’s death began with a 911 call from the Cup Foods store in Minneapolis about a fake $20 bill. Police bodycam footage played during Chauvin’s criminal trial shows Lane pulling a gun on Floyd, who was sitting in a parked car outside the store. Chauvin arrived on the scene a few minutes later with Thao and encountered Kueng and Lang attempting to put a handcuffed Floyd into a police vehicle. Floyd was then forced to the ground facedown, according to video footage.
While Chauvin pinned Floyd to the ground with this knee, Kueng held down Floyd’s torso, Lane held down his legs, and Thao kept bystanders from intervening.
After about four minutes, Lane asked, “Should we roll him on his side?” Keung responded, “Just leave him,” and Chauvin agreed, according to video footage.
Shortly after, Lane said, “I think he’s passing out,” but took no further action, Trepel told the court on Monday.
"When duty required immediate action, Lane said nothing. He chose to do nothing,” Trepel said.
Prosecutors said Thao was also within reach of Chauvin and could have intervened. "If he wanted to tap his partner on the shoulder, he could have," Trepel said.
Instead, prosecutors argued, Thao stood next to Chauvin until Floyd lost consciousness. They added that Kueng pressed onto Floyd's torso for a “full 8 minutes” and never told Chauvin to stop.
Prosecutors also dismissed the defense’s argument that Lane and Kueng were “rookies,” stating that they had nearly a year and a half of training and knew how to provide medical aid and CPR, and were also aware that putting a handcuffed suspect facedown was dangerous.
“A tragedy is not a crime,” Robert Paule, who is representing Thao, said in his opening statement. Paule argued it was in the officers’ right to investigate criminal behavior and contended that Floyd was “not following directions” and was “physically resisting” during his interactions with the officers.
Paule said Thao acted as a “human traffic cone” to hold back bystanders who did not know “anything that was going on before.”
Thomas Plunkett, Kueng’s attorney, argued that his client, who was 26 at the time of the arrest, was an inexperienced officer who had inadequate training and who trusted Chauvin — his field training officer and a 19-year veteran of the police force.
“Senior officers know things that rookies don't,” Plunkett said.
The defense also maintained that the officers were only making the decisions based on the information they had in the moment.
“You cannot see that knee on George Floyd's neck from where Thomas Lane was at,” Lane’s attorney, Earl Gray, said, who added that Lane will be testifying in the trial.
Prosecutors said that even though the bystanders who witnessed Floyd’s death had “no special training,” they knew the reality of what they were seeing and pleaded with the officers to help Floyd.
"They understood just by seeing his body go limp ... that unless somebody changed what was happening, he would die,” said Trepel, who indicated that some of the bystanders would be testifying in the trial.
She emphasized that all Minneapolis police officers are taught the phrase “in your custody is in your care,” which, she argued, the three officers did not demonstrate in their actions.
"Mr. Floyd was for far too long unable to expand his chest to take in enough oxygen," Trepel said.
Thao, Kueng, and Lane also face state charges of aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s killing and are expected to go on trial for that later this year.