By Jonathan Allen
ST PAUL, Minn. (Reuters) -Tou Thao, one of three former Minneapolis police officers on trial for violating George Floyd’s civil rights, told a jury on Tuesday he did not realize the Black man was being asphyxiated while a white officer knelt on his neck for nine minutes.
Testifying in his own defense, Thao, 36, said he assumed Floyd’s heart was still beating because he never saw the other officers attempt to revive him as they were trained to do.
Thao, 36, is on trial in the U.S. District Court in St. Paul alongside J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane. All three are accused of violating Floyd’s right to receive medical care as he lay dying, unable to properly breathe face down beneath the knee of their former colleague, Derek Chauvin.
Cellphone video of the arrest on a Minneapolis road on May 25, 2020, led to protests against racism and police brutality in cities around the world. Chauvin was convicted last year at a separate state trial for the murder of Floyd, 46.
Federal prosecutors, who rested their case on Monday after about three weeks of witness testimony, have said the other officers at the scene had a duty to intervene to prevent Floyd’s death.
Thao took the stand to convince jurors that he handled a chaotic scene in accordance with his training and with concern for the well-being of Floyd and the officers arresting him. His testimony marks the first extensive public comment by any of the officers involved in the arrest.
He can be seen on videos a few steps away from Floyd, keeping back horrified onlookers, while Chauvin kneels on the handcuffed Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes. The arrest occured outside a grocery store where Floyd was accused of using a fake $20 bill.
Under questioning by his defense lawyer Robert Paule, Thao said he believed that Chauvin and the other two officers on top of Floyd were checking his pulse. He said he was falsely reassured because none of them performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
“Logically, if they’re not doing CPR, I assume he’s still breathing and fine,” Thao testified, agreeing with his lawyer that police officers are trained to start CPR as soon as possible if they cannot find a pulse.
Floyd received no medical aid until after his limp body was lifted into an ambulance and driven a few blocks away, several minutes after he fell unresponsive.
Thao testified that he had confirmed with other officers that an ambulance had been called, and saw his role as a “human traffic cone,” making sure oncoming traffic steered clear of the scene.
Jurors watched video taken by Thao’s body-worn camera that shows Thao arriving to find Kueng and Lane struggling to get a handcuffed Floyd to stay in the back of a police car. Floyd screams repeatedly that he is claustrophobic and cannot breathe.
“Not to besmirch, but I’ve never seen this much of a struggle,” Thao testified, saying he had been an officer for eight years by that time. “It was obvious that he was under the influence of some kind of drugs.”
He said Floyd was incoherent and impossible to calm, and he feared Floyd might be having a dangerous reaction to drugs. An autopsy later found fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, and methamphetamine in Floyd’s blood.
Thao said it was normal during training sessions to see an officer on top of a person being arrested while prone on the ground, using a knee near the neck to pin down the arrestee. Jurors were shown photographs of Thao and his classmates using such restraints.
“Were you ever instructed that using knees was improper technique?” Paule asked his client.
“No,” Thao replied.
A ‘STRICT’ UPBRINGING
Thao told the jury his parents fled to the United States from Laos before he was born, refugees belonging to the Hmong ethnic group. He was the third of seven siblings, he said, and his parents could afford to feed them only one meal a day.
He said he was first inspired to become a police officer when, as a child, he helped Minneapolis police officers arrest his abusive father, who had threatened Thao and his mother with a gun.
“I think they were the two most peaceful days of my childhood,” Thao testified, on the verge of tears as he described the immediate aftermath of the arrest.
According to court filings based on police records, Thao was cited at least seven times while being trained in the field over several months in 2012 for shirking his duties, sometimes pretending not to see violations of the law in order to minimize his workload.
Chauvin, who is white, was also charged by federal officers of violating Floyd’s civil rights, and changed his plea to guilty in December.
The two other co-defendants, Lane and Kueng, have also said they will testify. Thao, Lane and Kueng also face a separate state trial in June on charges they aided and abetted Floyd’s murder.
(Reporting by Jonathan AllenEditing by Alistair Bell and David Gregorio)