MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Four former Minneapolis police officers charged with violating George Floyd‘s civil rights pleaded not guilty Tuesday in a federal hearing that included arguments on several pretrial motions, including requests to hold separate trials.
A federal grand jury indicted Derek Chauvin, Thomas Lane, J. Kueng and Tou Thao in May for allegedly depriving Floyd of his rights while acting under government authority on May 25, 2020, as Floyd, 46, was held face-down, handcuffed and not resisting in a restraint that was captured on bystander video. His suicide sparked worldwide protests and calls to reform policing.
All four men attended the hearing via videoconference. Chauvin, wearing a plain T-shirt, appeared from a small room in the state’s maximum-security prison, where he is serving a 22 1/2 -year sentence for murder in Floyd‘s death. Along with their attorneys, the three other men appeared remotely.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Tony Leung asked each man separately how he would plea, and each clearly responded: “Not guilty.”
The hearing also addressed roughly 40 pretrial motions, though many were similar. The majority of the motions were simple, such as agreeing on when witnesses’ names would be revealed. Leung heard oral arguments on two points and ordered that attorneys file additional written arguments.
Attorneys for Lane and Kueng asked the judge to remove language from the indictment that says their clients had been police officers since December 2019. Earl Gray, Lane‘s attorney, said his client was still in training and remained under supervision for months. Gray stated that Lane was on his fourth-shift without supervision when he met Floyd .. Tom Plunkett, Kueng‘s attorney, said his client was on his third shift without supervision. Both lawyers said that any language in the indictment that suggests otherwise would be unfair.
Common sense dictates that a police officer who has been on the job for four days would be less likely to intervene,” Gray stated.
Prosecutor Manda Sertich said the men were officers as of December 2019 — they graduated from the police academy and were sworn in.
Plunkett wrote in court documents that evidence against Chauvin would confuse the jury and deprive Kueng of his right to a fair trial. Gray claimed in court that “everybody know Derek Chauvin was convicted for murder”. Therefore, a jury would not be able to assume the innocence of other officers.
Attorney Robert Paule argued that much of the evidence against Chauvin would not come into play against his client, Thao. Paule also argued that since it appears Lane and Kueng intend to use their lack of experience as a defense, Thao, who had been an officer for more than eight years, should be tried alone.
Leung did not give any indication as to how he would rule. He stated that this case had video evidence which showed what each defendant did and did not do. Separating federal court trials is rare, but it happens. He asked the prosecutors why they should try them together.
Sertich said the state’s case against the men was separated due to space restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, but federal court has more space. She also said jurors will know about Chauvin‘s murder conviction whether he is sitting in the courtroom with the other three former officers or not.
As Floyd was being arrested, he repeatedly said he couldn’t breathe as Chauvin pinned him to the ground. Kueng and Lane helped restrain Floyd; Kueng knelt on Floyd‘s back, and Lane held Floyd‘s legs, according to evidence in state court. Thao held back bystanders and kept them from intervening during the 9 1/2-minute restraint.
While all four officers are accused of depriving Floyd his rights, while acting under government authority the indictment separates the charges. A count against Chauvin alleges he violated Floyd‘s right to be free from unreasonable seizure and unreasonable force by a police officer.
Thao and Kueng are charged with violating Floyd‘s right to be free from unreasonable seizure by not intervening to stop Chauvin as he knelt on Floyd‘s neck. The four officers were accused of depriving Floyd of his rights, when they failed to render medical care.
The four former officers were also charged in state court, where Chauvin was convicted in April of murder and manslaughter. Three other former officers will be facing state trials next March for aiding and abetting charges.
Meanwhile, the federal government is investigating policing practices in Minneapolis. An investigation called a “pattern of practice” — which examines whether there is unconstitutional or illegal policing — involves a thorough review of all police departments. It could lead to major changes in Minnesota’s policing.
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