Prosecutors and defense attorneys spent a full day in closing arguments that recapped a month of testimony
The jury hearing the case against three former Minneapolis police officers charged with violating George Floyd’s civil rights needs only to get instructions from the judge before starting deliberations Wednesday.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys spent a full day Tuesday in closing arguments that recapped a month of testimony and sought to sway the jury toward their view of the case.
For prosecutors, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao “chose to do nothing” as a fellow officer, Derek Chauvin, squeezed the life out of Floyd. Defense attorneys countered that the officers were too inexperienced, weren’t trained properly and did not willfully violate Floyd’s rights.
The three are charged with depriving Floyd of his right to medical care when Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for 9 1/2 minutes as the 46-year-old Black man pleaded for air before going silent. Kueng and Thao are also charged with failing to intervene to stop Chauvin during the May 25, 2020, killing that was captured on bystander video and triggered protests worldwide and a reexamination of racism and policing.
This image from video shows 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)
Prosecutors sought to show during the monthlong trial that the officers violated their training, including when they failed to roll Floyd onto his side or give him CPR. Prosecutors have argued that Floyd’s condition was so serious that even bystanders without basic medical training could see he needed help. But the defense said the Minneapolis Police Department’s training was inadequate and that the officers deferred to Chauvin as the senior officer at the scene.
Thao watched bystanders and traffic as the other officers held down Floyd. Kueng knelt on Floyd’s back and Lane held his legs. All three officers testified.
During her closing argument, prosecutor Manda Sertich singled out each former officer.
Thao stared directly at Chauvin and ignored bystanders’ pleas to help a man who was dying “right before their eyes,” Sertich said.
Kueng casually picked gravel from a police SUV’s tire as Chauvin “mocked George Floyd’s pleas by saying it took a heck of a lot of oxygen to keep talking,” she said.
And Lane voiced concerns that showed he knew Floyd was in distress but “did nothing to give Mr. Floyd the medical aid he knew Mr. Floyd so desperately needed,” the prosecutor said.
But attorneys for rookies Lane and Kueng urged jurors to question why their clients were charged at all.
Lane’s attorney, Earl Gray, said his client was “very concerned” about Floyd and suggested rolling him onto his side so he could breathe, but was rebuffed twice by Chauvin. He noted that Lane tried to help revive Floyd after an ambulance arrived, telling jurors that “any reasonable person should just be disgusted, should be infuriated” that Lane was charged.
This combination of photos provided by the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office in Minnesota shows (from left) former Minneapolis Police officers J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao. (Photos: Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office via AP, File)
Kueng’s attorney, Thomas Plunkett, said that Chauvin was in charge and that police weren’t adequately trained on the duty to intervene. He also said Kueng looked up to Chauvin, his former field training officer, and “relied on this person’s experience.”
“I’m not trying to say he wasn’t trained,” Plunkett said. “I’m saying the training was inadequate to help him see, perceive and understand what was happening here.”
Thao and Chauvin went to the scene to help Kueng and Lane after they responded to a call that Floyd used a counterfeit $20 bill at a corner store. Floyd struggled with officers as they tried to put him in a police SUV.
Thao’s attorney, Robert Paule, said his client thought the officers were doing what they believed was best for Floyd — holding him until paramedics arrived.
The charges include language that the officers “willfully” deprived Floyd of his constitutional rights. That means jurors must find that officers acted “with a bad purpose or improper motive to disobey or disregard the law,” Paule said.
He noted that Thao increased the urgency of an ambulance call for Floyd, something he said was clearly “not for a bad purpose.” He also said that Thao reasonably believed Floyd was on drugs and needed to be restrained until medical assistance arrived.
On the intervention charge, Sertich said, prosecutors merely had to prove that the officers knew the force Chauvin was using was unreasonable and that they had a duty to stop it but didn’t. On the charge that Floyd was denied medical care, the fact that the officers knew Floyd was in distress but did nothing is proof of willfulness, she said.
She pointed to the 2 1/2 “precious minutes” after Floyd became unresponsive and before paramedics got there.
FILE- A button that reads “I can’t breathe,” adorns the jacket of a mourner before the funeral for George Floyd on Tuesday, June 9, 2020, in Houston. Political observers are watching whether Texas’ governor will posthumously pardon Floyd for a 2004 arrest before the end of the year. (Godofredo A. Vásquez/Houston Chronicle via AP, Pool, File)
“They chose to do nothing, and their choice resulted in Mr. Floyd’s death,” she said.
Sertich contrasted the officers’ inaction with the desperate cries of bystanders pleading with them to get off Floyd and to check for a pulse.
Those bystanders, Sertich said, gave Thao and Kueng “play-by-play commentary” that should have raised their awareness that Floyd was in trouble.
A jury that appears to be all white will consider the case. The court did not release demographic information.
Federal civil rights violations that result in death are punishable by up to life in prison or even death, but those sentences are extremely rare, and federal sentencing guidelines suggest the officers would get much less if convicted.
Chauvin pleaded guilty in the federal case in December, months after he was convicted of state murder and manslaughter charges.
Lane, who is white, Kueng, who is Black, and Thao, who is Hmong American, also face a separate trial in June on state charges alleging that they aided and abetted murder and manslaughter.
The trial was wrapping up just as another major civil rights trial in Georgia resulted in the conviction of three white men on hate crimes charges in the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was chased and shot in February 2020.
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