The Washington Post
Officers plead not guilty in Floyd’s death
MINNEAPOLIS — Four former Minneapolis police officers charged in the death of George Floyd pleaded not guilty Tuesday to separate federal charges that they violated the man’s civil rights during the fatal arrest in May 2020.
But the federal judge overseeing the matter delayed decisions on several major issues in the case, including whether the former officers will be tried jointly and when the trial might take place.
A federal grand jury indicted Derek Chauvin, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas K. Lane and Tou Thao in May on charges they violated Floyd’s constitutional rights when he was restrained and handcuffed face down on a Minneapolis street during an investigation of a counterfeit $20 bill as he begged for breath and ultimately lost consciousness.
All four men appeared at an arraignment hearing held via videoconference — including Chauvin, who was seen sitting behind security glass in a reinforced room inside the maximum-security prison outside the Twin Cities where he is currently serving a 22½-year state sentence for murder in Floyd’s death.
Kueng, Lane and Thao — who are still awaiting a state trial on charges of aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter — appeared virtually sitting alongside their attorneys, their first joint appearance in state or federal court in over a year.
Federal prosecutors allege Chauvin violated Floyd’s constitutional rights to be free from unreasonable seizure and from unreasonable force by a police officer. Kueng and Thao were charged with violating Floyd’s right to be free from unreasonable seizure by not intervening as Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck and back. All four officers were charged with failing to render medical aid to Floyd.
U.S. District Magistrate Judge Tony N. Leung began the nearly two-hour hearing by asking each of the men to enter formal pleas in the case before taking up 40 pending motions in the case from prosecutors and the defense — including Kueng, Lane and Thao requesting their trials be separated from Chauvin’s.
In an extended oral argument, attorneys for all three men argued their clients would be unfairly prejudiced by having their fates linked to Chauvin, citing his state murder conviction and his infamy in a case that sparked a national reckoning on issues of race, social justice and policing.
“I can’t imagine something more prejudicial than a juror knowing [Chauvin] has already been convicted of this,” Earl Gray, an attorney for Lane, told the judge. “His actions are going to be held against us in this trial. Everybody knows that Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder. So are we going to be presumed innocent of this charge? I doubt it.”
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Manda Sertich pushed back on the argument — pointing out federal charges are different than the ones at play in the state murder case and that, for jurors, Chauvin’s behavior will loom over the case whether he’s tried separately or not because of evidence that links all four of the former officers.
“Whether or not Mr. Chauvin is sitting in the courtroom, [ jurors] will know that he was part of that conduct, and that he was convicted of murder,” Sertich said. “The question will still remain as to whether the remaining defendants either failed to intervene or failed to provide medical assistance after [Chauvin’s] conduct.”
The attorneys for Kueng and Lane, rookie officers who had been full-time on the force for less than a week, suggested they will point the finger at Chauvin — arguing they were young officers deferring to the veteran officer at the scene.
Gray and Thomas Plunkett, an attorney for Kueng, quibbled with prosecutors on the exact start date for their clients — suggesting they did not become police officers until May 2020, even though they had taken the oath as Minneapolis police officers in December 2019, when they graduated from the police academy and began undergoing field training alongside officers including Chauvin.
That back and forth prompted Robert Paule, an attorney for Thao, to suggest he could file a motion to try his client alone because of fears that other defendants could become akin to a “second prosecutor” in the case as the officers cast blame on one another.
Leung declined to rule on whether the trials will be separated — asking prosecutors and defense attorneys to file additional legal briefs on the issue next month as he considers a final decision.