ST. PAUL, Minn. (Reuters) -A federal prosecutor told a jury in closing arguments on Tuesday that three former Minneapolis police officers ignored their training and basic human decency by failing to intervene when their colleague knelt on George Floyd’s neck during a deadly arrest.
Tou Thao, 36; J. Alexander Kueng, 28; and Thomas Lane, 38, have all pleaded not guilty to charges they willfully denied Floyd’s constitutional right to receive medical aid in police custody 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.
Their lawyers in defense summations said prosecutors had failed to prove the three men acted with deliberate indifference, arguing that the defendants were oblivious at the time to the urgency of Floyd’s medical needs.
Thao and Kueng are also charged with willfully breaching the handcuffed 46-year-old Black man’s rights by not intervening in their colleague Derek Chauvin’s use of excessive force. Chauvin, who is white, was captured on widely seen cellphone video kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes as horrified onlookers begged the officers to check Floyd’s pulse.
Chauvin, 45, was convicted of Floyd’s murder at a separate state trial last year and sentenced to 22-1/2 years in prison. The federal trial in the U.S. District Court in St. Paul hinges on when an officer has a duty to intervene in a colleague’s misconduct.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Manda Sertich said Thao was captured on video choosing to argue with and mock the people on the sidewalk begging him to help Floyd rather than trying to get Chauvin off Floyd.
Kueng, she said, is seen smiling at a shared joke with Chauvin as Floyd died beneath them, and picking gravel out of the police car’s tire. Lane could be heard worrying that they should turn Floyd on his side but did not get up from pinning down Floyd’s legs.
She told the jurors, who were due to begin deliberations on Wednesday morning, that the defendants did not do what “human decency and common sense required them to do: to stop the slow-motion killing unfolding right in front of them.”
DEFERRING TO CHAUVIN
All three defendants have testified in their own defense, saying they deferred to Chauvin’s 19 years of experience as the most senior officer on the scene.
Lane and Kueng, who pinned Floyd’s legs as Thao stood nearby keeping onlookers back, have emphasized that they were rookies only a few days out of training. Sertich argued that even the rookies should have asked Chauvin to get off Floyd or to check his neck for a pulse.
“They want you to accept that it is too much to ask of them to say those things even though it was not too much for those regular people who were walking by,” Sertich said. “They made the choice not to upset their colleague rather than do their duty, even though that choice resulted in the death of a human.”
In his summation to the jury, Kueng’s lawyer Thomas Plunkett argued that Kueng should be acquitted because of his “inadequate training” and his lack of experience.
Thao’s lawyer, Robert Paule, argued that Thao knew from his training that if police find someone’s heart has stopped beating they must immediately begin performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) if safe.
“If Mr. Thao is standing there and the other three officers are monitoring and dealing with Mr. Floyd, and if he doesn’t see them rolling Mr. Floyd over or doing CPR, the logical assumption from their training is that Mr. Floyd must still have a pulse,” he said.
Kueng can be heard in body-worn camera videos telling his colleagues twice that he cannot find a pulse. He told the jury he did not take from this that Floyd’s heart had stopped, but decided instead that the handcuffs were preventing him from checking the pulse successfully.
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.
Lane’s lawyer, Earl Gray, accused the U.S. government of railroading an innocent man in a case that has reshaped discourses about policing and race.
“Why did the government indict him? You know why: politics, ladies and gentleman,” Gray said over prosecutors’ objections.
He noted that Lane got in the ambulance with the unresponsive Floyd and pumped Floyd’s chest, performing CPR: “How in the world could our government – the wonderful United States of America, freedom and all that – charge someone who does that?” Gray asked. “Think about that. Sort of scary.”
(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Aurora Ellis and Alistair Bell)