ST. PAUL, Minn. >> In the prosecution’s telling, three Minneapolis police officers did little more than callously watch as their colleague, Derek Chauvin, slowly killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for more than nine minutes. In the eyes of defense lawyers, the officers had trusted Chauvin, the veteran officer on the scene, to do his duty and should be acquitted.
The dueling positions presented Tuesday brought the arguments in the federal trial over Floyd’s death to a close, and jurors Wednesday will begin deliberating whether any of the three officers — Tou Thao, 36; J. Alexander Kueng, 28; and Thomas Lane, 38 — are guilty of violating Floyd’s civil rights.
Jurors have heard from doctors, police officers and other witnesses since the trial began nearly a month ago, and now they must decide whether any of the officers’ actions May 25, 2020 — for which they were quickly fired — rose to the level of a crime. Kueng and Lane, who were both on their first week on the job as full officers, helped to hold Floyd down, and Thao kept back a group of concerned bystanders. All three officers are charged with failing to provide medical aid to Floyd, while Kueng and Thao are also charged with failing to intervene to stop Chauvin.
The trial has largely focused on the training of Minneapolis police officers and on their duty to provide aid or stop a fellow officer from using excessive force. The verdict could signal whether jurors are viewing policing with more scrutiny — even when evaluating the actions of officers who are not primarily responsible for a person’s death.
Chauvin, 45, has been imprisoned since April, when he was convicted of murdering Floyd. He pleaded guilty to a federal charge of violating Floyd’s civil rights in December. The other three officers are also facing state charges of aiding and abetting murder, with that trial scheduled for later this year.
In her closing argument Tuesday, Manda Sertich, a federal prosecutor in Minnesota, sought to emphasize the length of time that Floyd had suffered while the three police officers did not provide aid. She also argued that the officers had willfully deprived Floyd of his rights, meaning that they knew what Chauvin was doing was wrong. Jurors must find that the defendants’ actions were willful in order to convict them.
By the time Floyd had uttered his final pleas for air, Sertich said, all three officers had spent several minutes failing to come to his aid.
Thao had “done nothing” for four minutes and 40 seconds as Floyd called out for help, Sertich said. During that same time, she said, Kueng ignored Floyd’s pleas as he crouched “shoulder to shoulder” with Chauvin, never urging him to let up. And Lane, who was holding Floyd’s legs, had chosen “not to stop the horror unfolding right under his nose,” only suggesting once that Chauvin roll Floyd onto his side but “doing nothing to give George Floyd the medical aid he knew he so desperately needed,” the prosecutor said.
Even as Floyd said he could not breathe for a 27th time, Sertich said, the officers “were only halfway through their crime.”
The officers are being tried together, but each has his own lawyer, and the three lawyers delivered separate closing arguments over several hours Tuesday afternoon.
They argued that their clients had deferred to the judgment of Chauvin, the senior officer on the scene; that their attention had at times been diverted from Floyd’s deteriorating condition; and that restraining Floyd was necessary because he had taken fentanyl and refused to get into the back of a police car after being accused of using a fake $20 bill. The lawyers also criticized prosecutors, with one saying that prosecutors had made misleading arguments and another suggesting that they had brought the case because of political pressure.
“Just because something has a tragic ending does not mean it’s a crime,” Robert Paule, a lawyer for Thao, said to the jury.
Earl Gray, the lawyer for Lane, noted that his client had asked Chauvin if the officers should roll Floyd onto his side and that as a result he had not been charged with failing to intervene. Gray also said that Lane had quickly told paramedics that Floyd was unresponsive after they arrived on the scene and that he had ridden with Floyd in an ambulance.
“How in the world could our government, the wonderful United States of America — freedom and all that — charge somebody who does that?” Gray said, adding that it was “kind of scary.”
Thomas Plunkett, a lawyer for Kueng, said the crowd of bystanders had created an unusual and hostile situation, and he said the jurors were the officers’ last defense against a “mob mentality” that he suggested was driving their prosecution.
The police officers had responded to a 911 call from a clerk at a convenience store in South Minneapolis reporting that Floyd had used a fake $20 bill to buy cigarettes.
As the officers pinned a handcuffed Floyd on his stomach in the street, a teenager recorded a video of Floyd, a Black security guard who had lost his job in the coronavirus pandemic, begging for air under Chauvin’s unrelenting knee. The video spurred the Minneapolis police chief to quickly fire all four officers, and it ignited racial justice protests that brought millions of people onto America’s streets and sidewalks. Chauvin and Lane are white, Thao is Hmong, and Kueng is Black.
Most of the 18 jurors selected to hear the case — 12 main jurors and six alternate jurors who would replace the primary jurors if necessary — were white, in part a reflection of the fact that jurors were drawn from across Minnesota rather than the more diverse Twin Cities region.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.