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Officers charged in George Floyd’s death not likely to present united front

  • COURTESY HENNEPIN COUNTY SHERIFF’S OFFICE
                                A combination of photos shows, from left, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao.

    COURTESY HENNEPIN COUNTY SHERIFF’S OFFICE

    A combination of photos shows, from left, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao.

MINNEAPOLIS >> Two of the former police officers charged with aiding and abetting in the killing of George Floyd turned on the senior officer accused in the case, making for an extraordinary court appearance this afternoon. A third officer was cooperating with authorities, a sign that the four fired officers would not be presenting a united front.

Facing 40 years in prison and a bail of at least $750,000, former officers Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng, both rookies, blamed Derek Chauvin, the senior officer at the scene and a training officer, their lawyers said in court. The lawyer for Tou Thao, another former officer charged in the case, said his client had cooperated with investigators before they arrested Chauvin.

Chauvin, a white 19-year veteran, was captured on a graphic video on May 25 kneeling for almost nine minutes on the neck of Floyd, who was African American, as the other three officers aided in the arrest.

Chauvin, 44, who did not appear in court today, faces the most serious charges of the four men — second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

In cases of excessive force, it is not common for officers to break ranks, or cross what is often called the blue wall of silence. But little about this case is typical: Floyd’s death has unleashed a movement, with demonstrations in more than 150 American cities against police brutality and systemic racism.

The hearing — which unfolded blocks from where Floyd was being remembered in a packed, emotional memorial service — was sparsely attended because of threats from the coronavirus. Lawyers for the defendants were flanked by National Guard soldiers and Hennepin County sheriff’s deputies as they entered the courthouse. Judge Paul R. Scoggin and lawyers, when they addressed the court, were the only ones who did not wear masks. All three defendants wore orange jumpsuits and light blue surgical masks.

Earl Gray, the lawyer representing Lane, 37, told the court that Chauvin was a training officer for new officers. He said that the day Floyd died was Lane’s fourth day on the force.

“They’re required to call him ‘Sir,’” Gray told the court. “He has 20 years’ experience. What is my client supposed to do but to follow what the training officer said? Is that aiding and abetting a crime?”

Throughout the hearing, Lane kept looking over at seven people who were there to support him.

Tom Plunkett, the lawyer representing Kueng, 26, said Chauvin was his client’s main training officer. Though police records show that Kueng had become a police officer in December, he was only on his third shift as a full-fledged officer when Floyd was killed, Plunkett said.

The lawyer also argued that Kueng, who is African American, and Lane, who is white, had tried to stop Chauvin.

“At multiple times, Mr. Kueng and Mr. Lane directed their attention to that 19-year veteran and said, ‘You shouldn’t do this,’” Plunkett said.

Eric Nelson, a lawyer for Chauvin, declined to comment on what the lawyers for the other former officers said at today’s hearing.

Plunkett specializes in defending police officers accused of crimes. But during the hearing he suggested that the Minneapolis Police Department had lost its way.

“The events of this case are horrific. The tragedy that flows from those events continues to grow,” Plunkett said. “I’m asking the court to set bail on the individual, on the person, and not on an institution that has lost its guidance.”

Robert Paule, the lawyer representing Thao, 34, said his client, who is Hmong, had met with state agents and surrendered his service revolver.

Still, Scoggin denied all the lawyers’ demands for reduced bail. The next court appearance for three of the former officers is scheduled for June 29. Chauvin is scheduled to be in court Monday.

The protests that have roiled the world began after a video released online showed Chauvin holding down Floyd until he was motionless. Police had responded to a 911 call that a counterfeit $20 bill was used to buy cigarettes at the Cup Foods corner store in south Minneapolis.

When Lane and Kueng arrived, they ordered Floyd out of a car, prosecutors say. Lane handcuffed him, and Floyd sat on the ground and said, “Thank you, man.” He was calm, the statement of probable cause said.

As they tried to walk Floyd to their squad car, he stiffened up and fell to the ground. Floyd told them he was not resisting arrest but was claustrophobic and did not want to get in the back seat of the car, according to the arrest affidavit.

Soon, Chauvin showed up, with Thao at his side.

Chauvin quickly took charge. Cellphone video showed that Chauvin placed his left knee on Floyd’s neck. Lane held Floyd’s legs, and Kueng held his back. Thao stood between the officers and onlookers, according to charging documents.

Calling for his mother and saying he was going to die, Floyd pleaded for his life, repeating, “I can’t breathe.”

Lane called on Chauvin to roll Floyd over, and warned that Floyd might be having a medical problem, Gray told the court. Still, the lawyer said Chauvin refused to do anything.

The four officers were fired the next day. On Friday, Chauvin was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. But Wednesday, as hundreds of protests continued across the nation, the murder charge was upgraded and the three other former officers were also charged.

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