The public quickly reached its verdict: Minneapolis police killed George Floyd.

Video seen around the world shows him on the pavement, his neck pinned beneath the knee of Officer Derek Chauvin, pleading for his life -- "I can't breathe" -- until his body goes limp.

Two autopsies concluded the death was a homicide.

Chauvin was charged with murder and three other officers -- Thomas Lane and Alexander Kueng, who both helped hold down Floyd, and Tou Thao, who kept onlookers at bay -- were charged as accomplices.

In an interview with The Times, a lawyer for Lane laid out what he said would be a central argument for the defense.

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"None of these guys -- even Chauvin -- actually killed him," said the attorney, Earl Gray. "He killed himself."

Free to speak publicly since a judge lifted a gag order on all parties in the case, Gray said he plans to argue that Floyd died from an overdose of the powerful opioid fentanyl and an underlying heart condition.

"We are going to show that my client and the other cops were doing their jobs," he said.

The veteran criminal defense attorney said he will base his case on toxicology and autopsy reports as well as recently released police body camera footage that offers a fuller picture than the cellphone videos taken by people on the street.

The body camera videos show that well before Floyd was pinned to the ground, he told the officers at least six times: "I can't breathe."

Legal experts said that defense strategy is not as far-fetched as it may seem, especially given that juries have been reluctant to convict police in on-duty killings.

"This is not a slam dunk for the prosecution and not an easy case, especially for the higher-degree homicide charges," said Philip Stinson, a Bowling Green State University criminologist and former cop who studies police misconduct. "If this case goes to trial and an officer testifies on his own behalf, it is possible there is reasonable doubt there for jurors."

No case in modern times has reverberated through society like that of Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man whose death on May 25 confirmed for many a longstanding national pattern of police racism and abuse.

Protests quickly spread, becoming the largest in U.S. history and extending to more than 60 countries in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

All four officers were fired and are free on bail. Attorneys for Chauvin, Kueng and Thao declined to comment, as did prosecutors in the case.

Last month, Gray filed a motion seeking dismissal of the case against Lane. The filing included transcripts of the video from his body camera and from the one worn by Kueng, opening the door to making the recordings public.

The footage, which was released last week and covers 37 continuous minutes, starts when the officers arrive at a convenience store in response to a call that a customer had presented a counterfeit $20 bill.

Lane rapped his flashlight on the window of a Mercedes-Benz SUV parked near the store.

"Let me see your hands," he said to Floyd, who sat in the driver's seat.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Floyd said.

Lane, on his fourth day as a police officer, demanded to see both hands. "Put your ... hands up right now!" he said to Floyd, who asked, "What we do, Mr. Officer?"

When Floyd did not immediately comply with instructions, Lane pointed a gun at him.

"Please don't shoot me, man," Floyd said.

"I'm not shooting you, man," Lane said, holstering his gun once Floyd raised his hands.

Christine Gardiner, a criminal justice professor at Cal State Fullerton, said the adversarial approach, common in policing, set the tone for escalation.

"If they would have approached him respectfully, I think things would have turned out very differently," she said.

The video shows that officers handcuffed Floyd and walked him toward the curb. He staggered, weaved and cried out.

Asked whether he was "on something," Floyd said he'd been "hooping," or taking drugs.

The officers directed him to a police car and ordered him to get inside. He resisted, repeatedly saying he was claustrophobic and couldn't breathe.

They tried to shove him into the backseat. Lane offered to stay with him, roll down the windows and turn on the air conditioning. Finally the officers decided to lay him down on the street.

Chauvin knelt on Floyd's neck for nine minutes and 30 seconds -- 44 seconds longer than prosecutors initially alleged.

In his July 7 motion, Gray included Minneapolis police training material on how to deal with an uncooperative suspect in handcuffs. A restraint position illustrated in a photograph closely resembles the method the officers used.

The instruction material also includes a warning: "Sudden cardiac arrest typically occurs immediately following a violent struggle."

On June 5, the Minneapolis City Council voted to ban chokeholds and neck restraints by police.

Stephen Houze, a Portland, Ore., attorney who has represented officers accused of brutality, said that the degree to which the defendants followed their training would be important at trial.

Still, he added: "No explanation offered now to avoid criminal responsibility can diminish the potency of the video."


This article was written by Richard Read, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times.