Officers charged in George Floyd's death seek individual trials

Four former Minneapolis police officers who were charged in the death of George Floyd are requesting to be tried separately. But prosecutors say all four should be tried together as they acted in concert.

Jim Mone/AP
Protesters demonstrate outside the Hennepin County Family Justice Center Sept. 11, 2020, in Minneapolis. Four former Minneapolis police charged in the death of George Floyd are scheduled to appear at the center for a hearing.

Attorneys for four former Minneapolis officers charged in the death of George Floyd say each client should get his own trial, as the officers try to diminish their roles in the Black man’s death by pointing fingers at one another.

Prosecutors say all four officers should be tried together because the nature of the charges and evidence is similar, and “it is impossible to evaluate any individual Defendant’s conduct in a vacuum.”

The former officers are due in court Friday for a hearing on several issues, including the prosecution’s request to hold a joint trial. Other issues being argued include defense requests to move the trial out of Minneapolis, sequester the jury, and keep jurors anonymous.

Mr. Floyd, who was in handcuffs, died May 25, 2020, after Derek Chauvin pressed his knee against his neck as Mr. Floyd said he couldn’t breathe. Mr. Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and manslaughter. Thomas Lane, J. Kueng, and Tou Thao are charged with aiding and abetting both second-degree murder and manslaughter.

Defense requests to dismiss charges won’t be addressed Friday. A trial is scheduled for March.

Friday’s hearing also marks the first time Mr. Chauvin has appeared in a courtroom. He is in state custody and has attended previous hearings via videoconference.

A few dozen protesters gathered in a street in front of the courthouse that had been blocked off, chanting “No justice, no peace.” One carried a Black Lives Matter flag and wore a black helmet with swim goggles around the back of his head. The windows on most nearby buildings were boarded up.

Prosecutors say the case should proceed with one trial because the evidence – including witness statements, body-camera video, and police department policy on use of force – is similar for each officer. Prosecutors say the officers also acted in close concert.

“Here, all four Defendants worked together to murder Floyd: Chauvin, Kueng, and Lane pinned Floyd face-down, while Thao stopped the crowd from intervening, enabling the other Defendants to maintain their positions. Defendants also discussed and coordinated their actions throughout the incident,” prosecutors wrote in a court filing.

Prosecutors also say witnesses and Mr. Floyd’s family members would likely be traumatized by multiple trials, and it would be more efficient and in the interest of justice to hold one proceeding.

But defense attorneys are pushing for separate trials, saying they are likely to offer “antagonistic” defenses, and evidence against one officer could negatively impact another’s right to a fair trial.

Attempts at finger-pointing are already prevalent throughout court filings in the case. Attorneys for Mr. Lane and Mr. Kueng have argued that their clients were rookies who were following Mr. Chauvin’s lead. Mr. Thao’s attorney, Bob Paule, has said his client’s role was “absolutely distinct” from the others, because he was on crowd control and was securing the scene, while the other three restrained Mr. Floyd.

Mr. Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, wrote that his client’s case is different. Mr. Nelson said prosecutors must prove Mr. Chauvin intended to assault Mr. Floyd, but they must also show that the other officers knew of Mr. Chauvin’s intent before it happened. As a result, he said, Mr. Chauvin will have to defend himself differently.

“The other defendants are clearly saying that, if a crime was committed, they neither knew about it nor assisted in it,” Mr. Nelson wrote. “They blame Chauvin.”

But Mr. Chauvin also points fingers at the others. Mr. Nelson wrote that Mr. Lane and Mr. Kueng – the officers who responded to a forgery call – initiated contact with Mr. Floyd before Mr. Chauvin and Mr. Thao arrived, and that Mr. Chauvin believes Mr. Floyd was overdosing on fentanyl. Mr. Nelson wrote that while Mr. Lane and Mr. Kueng called for a paramedic and believed Mr. Floyd was “on something,” they didn’t elevate the call to one of more urgency or give medical assistance.

“Instead, they struggled to subdue Mr. Floyd and force him into their squad car, likely exacerbating his condition considerably,” Mr. Nelson wrote, adding that Mr. Chauvin could reasonably argue that their inaction led to Floyd’s death.

“If EMS had arrived just three minutes sooner, Mr. Floyd may have survived. If Kueng and Lane had chosen to de-escalate instead of struggle, Mr. Floyd may have survived. If Kueng and Lane had recognized the apparent signs of an opioid overdose and rendered aid, such as administering naloxone, Mr. Floyd may have survived,” Mr. Nelson wrote.

Attorneys for all four men have also asked that the trial be moved from Minneapolis, saying pretrial publicity has made it impossible for them to receive a fair trial.

Mr. Paule, Mr. Thao’s attorney, said in a court filing that the state has tainted the jury pool by calling Mr. Floyd’s death a “murder.” Mr. Paule also cites protests that caused millions of dollars of damage in Minneapolis, saying an impartial jury can’t be found in Hennepin County because jurors would “shoulder the weight of their decision creating further rioting and destruction.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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