MINNEAPOLIS (AP) – Four former Minneapolis police officers accused of violating George Floyd’s civil rights pleaded not guilty on Tuesday in a federal hearing that included arguments on several pre-trial 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, while Floyd, 46, , was being held face down, handcuffed and not resisting in a detention which was captured on a bystander video. His death sparked protests around the world and calls for a change in the police.
The four men appeared remotely at the hearing by videoconference. Chauvin, dressed in a plain t-shirt, appeared from a small room in the state’s maximum security prison, where he is serving a 22-and-a-half-year sentence for murder in Floyd’s death. The other three men appeared from a distance alongside their lawyers.
US trial judge Tony Leung asked each man separately how he would plead, and each clearly answered, “Not guilty.
The hearing also addressed around 40 pre-trial motions, although many were similar. Most of the motions were routine, such as agreeing to when the names of witnesses would be released. But Leung heard oral arguments on two issues and ordered lawyers to file additional written arguments on those motions.
Lawyers for Lane and Kueng have asked the judge to remove wording from the indictment that their clients have been police officers since December 2019. Earl Gray, Lane’s attorney, said his client was still in training and had been under surveillance for months. Gray said Lane was working his fourth shift unsupervised when he met Floyd. Tom Plunkett, Kueng’s attorney, said his client was on his third shift without supervision. Both lawyers said the language in the indictment indicating otherwise would be unfair.
“Common sense dictates that a judicial officer with four days on the job is less inclined to intervene,” said Gray.
Prosecutor Manda Sertich said the men were officers in December 2019 – they graduated from the police academy and were sworn in.
Kueng, Thao and Lane are also calling for their federal trials to be separated from Chauvin’s, claiming they would suffer unfair prejudice if they were tried alongside him.
Plunkett wrote in court documents that the evidence against Chauvin would confuse the jury and deprive Kueng of his right to a fair trial. Gray argued in court that “everyone knows that Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder,” so a jury would be hard pressed to assume the innocence of other former officers.
Lawyer 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 that Lane and Kueng intend to use their inexperience as a defense, Thao, who had been an officer for over eight years, should be tried on his own.
Leung gave no indication of how he would rule. He said this case contained video evidence, which shows what each accused did or did not do. He also said that separation of trials in federal court is not common, but it does happen. He asked prosecutors why the men should be tried together.
Sertich said the state’s case against the men was separate due to space restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the federal court had more space. She also said jurors would be aware of Chauvin’s murder conviction whether or not he was seated in the courtroom with the other three former officers.
As Floyd was stopped, he repeatedly said he couldn’t breathe as Chauvin tackled 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 restrained passers-by and prevented them from intervening during the 9 and a half minutes of restraint.
While the four officers are widely accused of depriving Floyd of his rights while acting under government authority, the indictment breaks down the charges. A count against Chauvin alleges it violated Floyd’s right to be free from unreasonable seizure and unreasonable force by a police officer.
Thao and Kueng are accused of violating Floyd’s right to be safe from unreasonable seizure by not intervening to stop Chauvin as he knelt on Floyd’s neck. The four officers are accused of depriving Floyd of his rights when he failed to provide medical care.
The four former officers were also indicted in state court, where Chauvin was convicted in April of murder and manslaughter. The other three former officers will be tried by the state next March for complicity.
Chauvin is also indicted in a separate federal indictment alleging that he violated the civil rights of a 14-year-old boy in 2017.
Meanwhile, the federal government is investigating police practices in Minneapolis. The investigation known as the “model or practice” – examining whether there is an unconstitutional or illegal policing model or practice – involves a thorough examination of the entire police service. This could lead to major changes in policing in the city of Minnesota.
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