Developments in Criminal Cases Over Death of George Floyd

The four defendants in the criminal cases over the death of George Floyd last week made an unusual request for pretrial and trial audiovisual coverage which the court denied, in part. The issues in the cases were analyzed by criminal law experts. And some personal background information of the four defendants have been publicly discussed. After examining these developments, we will  await the results of the pretrial hearing in the four cases on June 29th.[1]

 Motion for Pretrial and Trial Audiovisual Recording [2]

On June 25 the attorneys for the four criminal defendants made a motion for audiovisual recording of pretrial and trial proceedings in the cases. Thomas Plunkett, the attorney for J. Alexander Kueng, on behalf of all defendants, asserted that such relief was “necessary to provide the Defendants with a fair trial in light of the State’s and other governmental actors multiple inappropriate comments and to assure an open hearing in light of the ongoing pandemic.” Those officials, said Plunkett, included “Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo.”

More specifically, Plunkett said, “this relief is necessary to blunt the effects of the increasing and repeated media attacks from the various officials who have breached their duty to the community. These State comments have crescendoed to an extraordinary volume this week with the Chief pronouncing that ‘[w]hat happened to Mr. Floyd was murder.’ The State’s conduct has made a fair and unbiased trial extremely unlikely and the Defendants seek video and audio coverage to let a cleansing light shine on these proceedings. Doing otherwise allows these public officials to geld the Constitution.”

Attorney General Keith Ellison responded by saying that although he supports a public trial, “Cameras could alter the way the lawyers present evidence. Cameras in the courtroom could subject the participants in the trial to heightened media scrutiny and thereby be distracting to conducting the trial.” The chances of  “creating more sensation than understanding” was “very high,” Ellison said.

The Hennepin County District Judge, Peter Cahill, immediately denied the motion for such pretrial coverage while reserving decision on the motion for such coverage of the trial. The Judge stated that Minnesota court rules require both the defense and prosecution to agree for such coverage for pretrial proceedings and that the prosecution did not so agree. In addition, said the Judge, such coverage “would risk tainting a potential Hennepin County jury pool.”

Analysis of Issues in These Criminal Cases[3]

A journalist reports, “Veteran defense attorneys say the prosecution’s case against Chauvin is strong, while a series of unique circumstances pose challenges to both prosecutors and defense attorneys.”

Several facets of these cases seem to favor the prosecution. These cases do not involve “split-second” decisions on use of force which often lead a jury to avoid second guessing such decisions. Moreover, “Floyd warned the officers of his own impending death after repeatedly telling them he couldn’t breathe,” and bystanders were making the same warning. Finally the three officers charged with “aiding and abetting” could cause a crack in the alleged “blue wall of silence” protecting officers.

Indeed, at their initial appearances, the attorneys for Lane and Kueng argued that their clients were rookies who relied on Chauvin, a 19-year veteran and their training officer, for guidance at the scene.

A prominent local criminal defense attorney, Joe Friedberg, thought that Lane’s twice suggesting turning Floyd over and later performing CPR on him was strong evidence he had no intent for Floyd to die.

Another local criminal defense attorney, Robert Richman, had a different reaction. He thought that Chauvin “could direct the blame at Lane, who was holding down Floyd’s leg as Floyd lay stomach-down in the street, and Kueng, who was holding onto Floyd’s back. It seems that keeping someone … in a prone position on your stomach and having pressure placed on your back causes respiratory difficulties.” Perhaps “it was the other two officers holding him down that caused the breathing difficulties,” rather than Chauvin kneeling on the side of Floyd’s neck.

Another complication was the existence of two different autopsy reports. “The Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office found that Floyd died when his heart stopped  while he was being restrained, noting that the presence of fentanyl intoxication and recent methamphetamine were “other significant conditions” while the autopsy commissioned by the attorneys for Floyd’s family said he died of asphyxia. These provide bases for defense arguments that Floy had started to die before Chauvin put his knee on the neck.

New Rule for Use of Bodycam Footage[4]

On June 27 Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and Police Chief Medaria Arradondo announced a new rule for officers’ review of their body camera footage. Now the officer “as soon as practical” must write and submit his or her written report of the incident before looking at that footage and before talking with anyone other than the incident commander and the lead investigator. This new rule purportedly will provide a more accurate account of the officer’s recollection of the incident.

The Police Officers’ Backgrounds[5]

The police personnel files for the four officers and published articles reveal the following  details:

  • Derek Chauvin. He attended Park High School in Cottage Grove, Minnesota, but did not graduate. After getting his GED he attended Dakota County Technical College, Inver Hills Community College and Metropolitan State University, all in Minnesota. Previous jobs include working security, and food service including at a McDonald’s. Chauvin also had two periods of active service in the U.S. Army. From September 1996 to February 1997 he was stationed in Rochester, Minnesota with a job in military police. He served again from September 1999 to May 2000 in military police, at Hohenfels, Germany where his job duties as including criminal investigations, traffic enforcement and proactive patrol.

During his 19-year career with the Minneapolis Police Department, Chauvin was involved with several police shootings, includes both commendations and more than 15 conduct complaints. Almost all the complaints were closed without discipline, records show, suggesting the allegations weren’t sustained. The nature of the complaints wasn’t made public. The file includes a 2008 letter of reprimand Chauvin received for the two violations involving “discretion” and a squad car camera. “This case will remain a B violation and can be used as progressive discipline for three years,” the letter notes. Chauvin received a Medal of Commendation in 2008 for disarming a man outside the El Nuevo Rodeo club on E. Lake Street while working security off-duty in his uniform. He was also recommended for a Medal of Valor in 2006 related to the shooting death of Wayne Reyes, a stabbing suspect who fled in his truck with officers in pursuit. When Reyes stopped and climbed out of the truck, police said he swung his sawed-off shotgun toward the six officers, all of whom fired their weapons.

Chauvin his married , but immediately after his arrest for the Floyd death, she filed for divorce with her attorney saying, “She is devastated by Mr. Floyd’s death and her utmost sympathy lies with his family, with his loved ones and with everyone who is grieving this tragedy.”

  • Tou Thao. The 11-year veteran and native Hmong speaker from Coon Rapids, Minnesota first applied to the department as a community service officer following stints in food service and as a security guard. He was among those laid off three days before Christmas in 2009 as the police department faced a $13 million budget shortfall. In a termination letter, a supervisor assured him the action was not related to his job performance. Officials called him back to work almost exactly two years later.

Thao and another officer were the subjects of a 2017 police brutality lawsuit. Lamar Ferguson, a black man, alleged that in 2014 the two officers told him they were serving a warrant for his arrest, then beat him, breaking his teeth, while he was handcuffed. The city of Minneapolis paid $25,000 to settle the civil rights case.

  • Thomas Lane. A University of Minnesota graduate in sociology of law, criminology and deviance. He worked with at-risk youth as a juvenile detention guard and probation officer in the Twin Cities before applying as a police recruit at age 35. He also had volunteer work mentoring Somali youth and school kids.
  • Alexander Koenig. At age 26, he is the youngest of the four officers and is of mixed-race and identifies as African-American. In 2010 he and two siblings made several trips to Haiti to help at an orphanage, once after its 2010 earthquake.He was captain of the varsity soccer team at Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis, where he graduated in 2012. He also played for the Cruz Azul Minnesota soccer club. He attended Monroe College, Minneapolis Community & Technical College and the University of Minnesota, graduating from the last in 2018 with a major in sociology of law, criminology and deviance and becoming conversational in the Russian language. His work history includes a job as security monitor at the University of Minnesota and working in loss prevention at Macy’s. He also worked at Target, and he coached youth baseball and soccer at the Brooklyn Center Community Center.

Kueng had seen a sibling arrested and treated poorly by sheriff’s deputies and had told friends he was joining the police to help protect people close to him from police aggression as the best way to fix a broken system.

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[1] This blog has published posts about the Floyd death and related issues of police reform. See List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: George Floyd Killing; List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Police Reform.

[2]  Xiong & Montemayor, Judge denies audiovisual coverage of hearings for former officers charged in George Floyd killing, StarTribune (June 26, 2020).

[3] Xiong, In trial over George Floyd’s killing, both defense, prosecution face unique challenges, StarTribune (June 27, 2020).

[4]] Klecker, Minneapolis mayor, police chief announce tighter body-camera rules, StarTribune (June 29, 2020).

[5] Bjorhus & Sawyer, Personnel records shed light on four Minneapolis police officers charged in George Floyd’s death, StarTribune (June 4, 2020); Bjorhus, A deeper look at the four officers fired after George Floyd death, StarTribune (June 1, 2020); Barker, Eligon & Furber, Officers Charged in George Floyd’s Death Not Likely to Present United Front, N.Y.Times (June 4, 2020); Barker, The Black Officer Who Detained George Floyd Had Pledged to Fix the Police, N.Y. Times (June 27, 2020); Wernau, The Other Police Officers Charged in George Floyd Killing, W.S.J. (June 29, 2020).