By Jonathan Allen
ST. PAUL, Minn. (Reuters) -A federal prosecutor told a jury in closing arguments on Tuesday that three former Minneapolis police officers ignored their training and basic human decency by failing to intervene when their colleague knelt on George Floyd’s neck leading to his death.
Tou Thao, 36; J. Alexander Kueng, 28; and Thomas Lane, 38, have all pleaded not guilty to charges they willfully denied Floyd’s right to receive medical aid in police custody during the May 2020 arrest even as they had what a prosecutor called “front-row seats” to Floyd’s murder beside a police car parked in a Minneapolis intersection.
Thao and Kueng are also charged with willfully breaching the handcuffed 46-year-old Black man’s rights by not intervening while their colleague Derek Chauvin, who is white, knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes as horrified onlookers begged the officers to check Floyd’s pulse.
Chauvin, 45, was sentenced to 22-1/2 years in prison after being convicted of Floyd’s murder at a separate state trial last year. The federal trial in the U.S. District Court in St. Paul hinges on when an officer has a duty to intervene in a colleague’s misconduct and has shone a light on a deeply hierarchical culture at police departments.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Manda M. Sertich said Thao was captured on video choosing to “argue and mock” with the people on the sidewalk begging him to help Floyd rather than trying to get Chauvin off Floyd’s neck. Kueng, she said, could be seen smiling at a shared joke with Chauvin as Floyd died beneath them, and picking gravel out of a police car’s tire. Lane could be heard worrying that they should turn Floyd on his side but did not get up from pinning down Floyd’s legs.
She said the defendants did not do what “human decency and common sense required them to do: to stop the slow-motion killing unfolding right in front of them.”
All three defendants testified in their own defense, saying they deferred to Chauvin’s many years of experience as the most senior officer on the scene. Lane and Kueng, who pinned down Floyd’s buttocks and legs as Thao stood nearby keeping onlookers on the sidewalk, have emphasized that they were rookies only a few days out of training.
Sertich said that even the rookies could and should have asked Chauvin to get off Floyd or to check his neck for a pulse.
“They want you to accept that it is too much to ask of them to say those things even though it was not too much for those regular people who were walking by,” Sertich said. “They made the choice not to upset their colleague rather than do their duty, even though that choice resulted in the death of a human.”
The men said they did not grasp that Floyd was dying beneath Chauvin’s knee, and assumed that, with 18 years on the force, the officer knew what he was doing. Sertich argued that they could easily tell Floyd had passed out from a neck restraint, which they should have known from training, was dangerous.
Prosecutors have repeatedly drawn attention to the horrified bystanders on the sidewalk, most of whom had no medical training but correctly observed that Floyd had fallen unresponsive and screamed at officers to check Floyd’s pulse. Some appeared on the stand during the near three weeks of testimony.
Kueng can be heard in body-worn camera videos telling his colleagues twice that he cannot find a pulse. He told the jury he did not take from this that Floyd’s heart had stopped, but decided instead that the handcuffs were preventing him from checking the pulse successfully.
The defendants’ lawyers will deliver their own closing arguments before the jury begins deliberating. All three men face years in prison if convicted, and are also due to stand trial in a Minnesota court in June on state charges of aiding and abetting Floyd’s murder.
(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Aurora Ellis and Mark Porter)