Three former Minneapolis officers broke the law by failing to stop Derek Chauvin from killing George Floyd during an arrest and were indifferent to the handcuffed Black man's dying pleas, a prosecutor told a jury in opening statements in the federal trial on Monday.
Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane are charged with violating Floyd's civil rights during the arrest of the 46-year-old on a road outside a Minneapolis grocery store in May 2020, video of which sparked street protests against racism and police brutality around the world.
Federal prosecutor Samantha Trepel, from the US Department of Justice's civil rights division, said the defendants had broken their oath with a callous indifference to Floyd. She said video captured how Kueng at times seemed more preoccupied with some gravel lodged in the tire of the nearby police car than the man beneath him repeatedly saying: "I can't breathe."
Last year, the defendants' former colleague Derek Chauvin, 45, was found guilty of murder and manslaughter in Floyd's death at the end of a nationally televised state trial in April 2021, and a Minnesota judge sentenced him to 22-1/2 years in prison.
Chauvin, who is white, was also charged alongside his colleagues by federal prosecutors with violating Floyd's civil rights in their capacity as police officers. Chauvin changed his plea to guilty last December. Thao, Kueng and Lane, who could face years in prison if convicted, have all pleaded not guilty.
"For more than nine minutes, each of the three defendants made a conscious choice over and over again not to act," Trepel told the jury. "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."
She said that the officers had sworn an oath to care for people in their custody, and were required by law to stop Chauvin.
Defense lawyers say the three defendants had a right and a duty to arrest Floyd on suspicion he used a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes, and were not criminally liable for Chauvin's conduct.
"The death of Mr. Floyd is indeed a tragedy," Robert Paule, a lawyer for Thao, said in his opening statement in which he described the dangers police officers face in making arrests. "However, a tragedy is not a crime."
Prosecutors are seeking to convince the jury in the US District Court in St. Paul that the men willfully failed to help Floyd during what Trepel called Chauvin's "slow-motion killing." The indictment says a person under arrest has a right to "be free from a police officer's deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs."
Thao, 36, and Kueng, 28, face an additional count in the indictment, which says they willfully failed to stop Chauvin using excessive force against a prone, handcuffed Floyd, violating Floyd's right to be free from unreasonable seizure.
Thao had worked for the Minneapolis Police Department for eight years. Lane, 38, and Kueng, who helped restrain Floyd's lower body, had joined only a few months prior to the arrest, and Chauvin was their field training officer.
Kueng was "a rookie officer" on his third shift ever on the job and was let down by his seniors with "inadequate training," his lawyer Thomas Plunkett told the jury. He grew up in a racially diverse household and had hoped to change the police department "from within," Plunkett said.
The jury will hear from other Minneapolis police officers who will testify that the three defendants were trained in how to administer medical aid to people in their custody, and taught that simply moving Floyd onto his side could have saved his life, Trepel said.
They will also hear from some of the horrified bystanders who shouted at the officers to check Floyd's pulse as he said repeatedly that he could not breathe, Trepel said.
"After Mr. Floyd lost the ability to speak, the people on the sidewalk stood up for him," Trepel told the jury. "They understood just by seeing his body go limp, listening to his words and then listening to his silence that, unless somebody changed what was happening, he would die."
After the federal trial, the three men still face a state trial for aiding and abetting the murder of Floyd.