Federal Criminal Trial for George Floyd Killing: Opening Statements

The trial of J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao began on January 24 with the opening statements of the prosecution and defense attorneys.[1]

Prosecution’s Opening Statement

Assistant U.S. Attorney Samantha Trepel said that when police officers take a person into their custody, those officers are responsible for keeping that ensuring a person’s safety. “In your custody is in your care. It’s not just a moral responsibility, it’s what the law requires under the U.S. Constitution.” Then someone signs “up to carry a gun and wear a badge [it] comes with life or death duties.”

“Here, on May 25, Memorial Day 2020, for second after second, minute after minute, these three CPR-trained defendants stood or knelt next to officer Chauvin as he slowly killed George Floyd right in front of them” and each of them  “made a conscious choice over and over again not to act. They chose not to intervene and stop Chauvin as he killed a man slowly in front of their eyes on a public street in broad daylight.” Eventually  “the window to save Floyd’s life slammed shut.”

Defense Counsels’ Opening Statements

Before their opening statements, at least two defense counsel asked Judge Paul Magnuson to declare a mistrial due to the prosecution’s alleged “argumentative” opening statement, but the Judge denied the request.

Attorney Robert Paule, representing ex-officer Tou Thau, acknowledged “the tragedy” of Mr. Floyd’s death, but “a tragedy is not a crime.” He reminded the jury that the familiar video by a young woman at the scene did not show why the officers were at the scene in the first place– to investigate a report of a counterfeit $20 bill and Mr. Floyd’s erratic behavior and failure to follow officers’ directions.

Attorney Thomas Plunkett said his client, ex-officer J. Alexander Kueng, was a “rookie officer” who was deeply influenced by Chauvin, the most senior officer on the scene with 19 years on the street, a field training officer (FTO) in Third Precinct “for a very long time” and Kueng’s FTO. Such a FTO “has great control over a young officer’s future” in the Department and can recommend the termination of such a newcomer. In order for Kueng to be found guilty, the jury must conclude that he acted willfully, which requires proof that he acted with a bad purpose to disobey the law to deprive Floyd of his rights.

However, there is no such proof. Moreover, the Minneapolis Police Department’s “training on ‘intervention’ is little more than a word on a PowerPoint.” With senior officer Chauvin in charge, Kueng did not have the experience or proper training to deal with the situation as it unfolded or how to intervene. Nevertheless, he checked Floyd’s pulse twice and told Chauvin he could not detect a heartbeat.

The video taken by a bystander was not what Kueng saw. It is not what he perceived. It is not what he experienced.

Attorney  Earl Gray for ex-officer Thomas Lane, emphasized that Floyd at 6 foot four and 225 pounds “was all muscle” and when he reached around in the console of his vehicle, Lane feared he might be reaching for a gun. Later Lane did not put pressure on Mr. Floyd, but just had his hands on the suspect’s feet. Lane suggested to Chauvin they should “hobble” Mr. Floyd on his side, but Chauvin said “no” so it was not done. Lane also suggested that the officers should roll Mr. Floyd on his side, but Chauvin said, “no, he’s good where he is. Lane asked Chauvin if Floyd was experiencing “excited delirium,” when someone after fighting wakes up with super-human strength,” which he learned about at his police training, but Chauvin rejected the suggestion.  When the ambulance arrived, Lane asked to ride with Floyd and performed chest compressions on him and was “not deliberately indifferent at all.”

Finally the attorney said Mr. Lane would testify at the trial.

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[1] Mannix & Walsh, Opening Statements Monday in federal trial of 3 ex-cops implicated in George Floyd’s death, StarTribune (1/24/22); Live: Federal trial of 3 former Minneapolis officers in George Floyd death, StarTribune (1/24/22); Bailey, Opening statements to begin in federal trial over George Floyd’s killing, Wash. Post (1/24/22); Arango, George Floyd’s Civil Rights Are Focus in Opening Arguments of Federal Trial, N.Y. Times (1/24/22); Ajasa, Trial begins of three ex-police officers present at George Floyd murder, Guardian (1/24/22)