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Jury to get case Wednesday in ex-cops' federal trial in George Floyd killing

Attorneys for prosecution, defense deliver closing arguments

STPAULCOURTROOMSKETCH
In a courtroom sketch from the opening of the trial, three former Minneapolis police officers -- Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane -- are shown with their attorneys. The three men face federal Justice Department charges of abusing their position as police officers to deprive George Floyd of his constitutional rights when another officer, Derek Chauvin, kneeled on Floyd's neck for more than nine minutes in May 2020.
Cedric Hohnstadt illustration via Reuters
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MINNEAPOLIS — On the final morning of their civil rights trial, a federal prosecutor described to jurors how three former Minneapolis police officers watched and listened but did not help as Derek Chauvin killed a man "in broad daylight on a public street."

The officers knew Floyd needed help, Assistant U.S. Attorney Manda Sertich said. They were trained that every second counted when it came to saving an unresponsive man's life. They had the ability to render aid.

Instead, Sertich said, Officer Tou Thao "mocked" Floyd, remarking to a group of bystanders that this is "why you don't do drugs." Thomas Lane suggested turning Floyd over, which Sertich said proves he recognized the medical emergency. But when Chauvin denied the request, Lane did nothing more to help the man. J. Alexander Kueng held Floyd's legs and "causally picked gravel out of the tire in front of him, and laughed" when Chauvin said the dying man was talking a lot for someone who claimed he couldn't breathe, she said.

"They chose not to aid George Floyd, as the window into which Mr. Floyd's life could have been saved slammed shut," she said. "This is a crime. The defendants are guilty as charged."

Sertich was the first to give closing arguments in the trial Tuesday. Final remarks for the defense were scheduled to last throughout the afternoon. The arguments follow nearly a month of of testimony, which included each of the three former officers taking the witness stand in their own defense.

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Sertich asked jurors to reject a key defense argument that the officers were incapable of telling Chauvin, the senior officer on scene, to remove his knee from Floyd's neck as he "slow-motion" cut off the man's oxygen. She said the bystanders who cried out for them to intervene on the "violent crime" show this to be a false narrative.

"Those civilians didn't have a badge," she said. "They didn't have other officers who could back them up. They knew these officers they were watching had more power than they did, more authority than they did, and could cause trouble for them. And they still insisted."

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A still photo from the body camera of then-Minneapolis police officer Tou Thao on May 25, 2020, when officers detained George Floyd outside a neighborhood store in south Minneapolis. Thao, and two other former Minneapolis police officers -- J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane -- are facing federal charges of abusing their position as police officers to deprive Floyd, who later died, of his constitutional rights when another officer, Derek Chauvin, kneeled on Floyd's neck for more than nine minutes.
Courtesy Hennepin County via MPR News

In a nearly two-hour statement, Sertich broke down each element of the civil rights law, including how the officers knew they had an obligation to help the man in their custody and "willfully" — defined as with a "bad purpose" — failed to do so. "These defendants knew what was happening, and contrary to their training, contrary to common sense, contrary to basic human decency, they did nothing to stop Derek Chauvin or help George Floyd," she said. "You know it, because you've seen it."

Parsing the politics of the high-profile case, Sertich said Minneapolis depends every day on the good cops who protect public safety.

"This case isn't about those officers," she said.

She said it's not an acceptable defense to say they allowed a man to die because they didn't want to upset a senior colleague.

"It's what we expect from them as a community, because that's what the constitution demands: To act," she said.

Sertich said the three officers lied several times on the stand, such as when Kueng said he couldn't hear the bystanders on the sidewalk pleading for them to help Floyd, or when Thao claimed he felt unsafe, but then turned his back to the crowd.

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"The reason a person lies is because a person knows he has something to hide," she said. "It's evidence of willfulness."

Robert Paule, attorney for Thao, began his statements by calling Floyd's death a tragedy. But "just because something has a tragic ending does not mean it's a crime," he said.

Paule said Thao was eating lunch when they heard the call come in. He and Chauvin decided to provide backup to their two rookie colleagues, because they knew it was turf for the street gang the Bloods, and "an area that might be a little more hostile to police than other areas."

Thao didn't know the details of what led up to the struggle with Floyd, but he saw three officers failing to place the man in the squad. "Think about that," he said. "Three officers are not able to control a person in handcuffs."

The officers upgraded the ambulance call to a higher severity level, which shows they didn't willfully neglect to help Floyd. "They didn't do that for a bad purpose," he said. "They did that to get medical people there quickly."

Paule said Floyd was dishonest when he told the officers he wasn't on drugs, and the attorney implied Floyd may have taken drugs rectally.

090321.N.MPR.FLOYDTRIAL2.jpg
From left, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao.
Courtesy photos / Hennepin County Sheriff's Office

Paule spoke at length about excited delirium, producing slides shown earlier in the trial about the department's extensive training on this controversial syndrome while the officers attended the academy. One told officers that this severe form of agitation may lead to "superhuman strength."

"This is not something that's made up," Paule said, acknowledging there is conflict about the diagnosis in the medical community. "You know that my client and the other officers were trained on it." Paule also showed slides from Thao's time in the academy, in which officers placed their knees on the necks of people to restrain them.

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Next up was Kueng's attorney Thomas Plunkett, who said Kueng was inadequately trained and "under the influence" of Chauvin, his former training officer.

"He respected this person. He looked up to this person. He relied on this person's experience," he said.

Plunkett emphasized the jury's duty to be impartial and fair, or "the exact opposite of a mob."

"When a man is thrown to the mob, is that justice? Fairness is what your grandmother taught you. Fairness is about being honest. That is what this case is about," he said.

Lane's lawyer, Earl Gray, accused the U.S. government of railroading an innocent man in a case that has reshaped discourses about policing and race.

"Why did the government indict him? You know why: politics, ladies and gentleman," Gray said over prosecutors' objections.

He noted that Lane got in the ambulance with the unresponsive Floyd and pumped Floyd's chest, performing CPR: "How in the world could our government - the wonderful United States of America, freedom and all that - charge someone who does that?" Gray asked. "Think about that. Sort of scary."

Reuters contributed to this report.

©2022 StarTribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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