A jury was due to begin deliberating on Wednesday on whether three former Minneapolis police officers deprived George Floyd of his constitutional rights by failing to come to the aid of the handcuffed Black man pinned beneath a colleague’s knee.
Tou Thao, 36; J. Alexander Kueng, 28; and Thomas Lane, 38, all testified in their own defense in the federal trial at the U.S. District Court in St. Paul, telling jurors they did not realize at the time that Floyd was in dire need of medical care, which it was their duty to provide.
Their lawyers in defense summations said prosecutors had failed to prove the three men acted with deliberate indifference during the May 2020 arrest, even as they had what a prosecutor called “front-row seats” to Floyd’s murder beside a police car parked in a Minneapolis intersection.
Thao and Kueng are also charged with willfully breaching Floyd’s rights by not intervening in the use of excessive force by their colleague Derek Chauvin. A widely seen cellphone video showed Chauvin, who is white, kneeling on the neck of the prone Floyd for more than 9 minutes as horrified onlookers begged the officers to check Floyd’s pulse.
Floyd’s killing sparked protests in cities around the world against police brutality and racism. Thao is Asian American, Kueng describes himself as mixed race and Lane is white.
Chauvin, 45, was convicted of Floyd’s murder at a separate state trial last year and sentenced to 22-1/2 years in prison; in December, he pleaded guilty to the federal charges of violating Floyd’s rights.
U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson said he would instruct the 12 jurors in the law before giving them the case for deliberations.
In closing arguments on Tuesday, defense lawyers said the officers deferred to the authority of Chauvin, the most senior officer at the scene with 19 years at Minneapolis Police Department.
It was not obvious to them that Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck amounted to excessive force, they said, even as onlookers yelled at the officers with growing alarm to get off Floyd, who begged for his life before falling unresponsive.
Kueng and Lane, who first handcuffed Floyd on suspicion of using a fake $20 bill in a nearby store, have noted they were rookies only a few days out of training, which lasted more than a year. Thao, who had been in the force for eight years, stood to the side of Floyd, keeping back the bystanders.
In a final rebuttal on Tuesday, LeeAnn Bell, a federal prosecutor, said there were no “free passes” under the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees that people not face excessive force or be deprived of medical care when the government takes them into custody.
“There’s no pass for, ‘I was a brand-new officer.’ There’s no pass for, ‘It would have been hard or uncomfortable to speak up,'” she said. “Our constitution weighs the risk and our constitution says you must act.”
Medical experts have testified that Floyd almost certainly would have survived the arrest if he had been rolled onto his side once the officers restrained him, as the officers acknowledged they had been taught to do.
All three men face years in prison if convicted, and are also due to stand trial in a Minneapolis court in June on state charges of aiding and abetting Floyd’s murder.