The US federal prosecution of three former Minneapolis police officers who took part in the deadly arrest of George Floyd began on Thursday in a trial that turns on when an officer has a duty to intervene in a colleague’s excessive use of force.
Tou Thao, J. Alexander Keung and Thomas Lane are charged with violating Floyd’s civil rights during the arrest on a road outside a Minneapolis grocery store in May 2020.
All three men were peripheral characters in a chaotic, violent scene that galvanized some of the largest anti-racism protests in the US. They can all be glimpsed at times in a widely seen cellphone video that shows their colleague Derek Chauvin with his knee on the handcuffed Black man’s neck for more than nine minutes.
A jury found Chauvin, 45, guilty of murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death at the end of a nationally televised state trial in April 2021, and a Minnesota judge sentenced him to 22 and a half years in prison.
Another jury, chosen in the US District Court in St. Paul on Thursday, will now be asked to decide what, if anything, his colleagues should have done to stop Chauvin kneeling on Floyd, who was suspected of buying cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill.
There are no African-Americans apparent among the 10 women and eight men selected as jurors and alternates, according a reporter providing a pool report for all media. One appears to be an Asian-American woman and another an Asian-American man and the rest are white, the report said.
Federal prosecutions of US police officers for killing someone while on duty are rare; the prosecution of other officers for willfully violating someone’s rights by not stopping a colleague who is using excessive violence is even rarer, legal observers say.
“Now the question is: who else gets held accountable?” said David Schultz, a law professor at the University of Minnesota. “Am I my fellow officer’s keeper? If I see Derek Chauvin do something wrong, do I have some kind of duty to intervene?”
Mark Osler, a law professor at Minnesota’s University of St. Thomas and a former federal prosecutor, said most police misconduct trials, including that of Chauvin, focus on an officer’s actions.
“This is about the actions that were not taken,” he said. “This is a very different trial.”
Chauvin, who is white, was also charged alongside his colleagues by federal prosecutors with violating Floyd’s civil rights. He changed his plea to guilty last December.
Thao, Keung and Lane, who could face years in prison if convicted, have all pleaded not guilty.
Prosecutors from the US Department of Justice’s civil rights division will seek to convince the jury that the men “willfully failed to aid Floyd” as he fell unconscious beneath Chauvin’s knee. The indictment says that a person under arrest has a right to “be free from a police officer’s deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs.”
Thao and Keung face an additional count in the indictment, which says they “willfully failed” to stop Chauvin using excessive force against a prone, handcuffed Floyd, violating Floyd’s right to be free from unreasonable seizure.
Lane, who helped Keung physically restrain Floyd’s lower body, avoided being charged with the second count in part because videos record him asking his colleagues whether they should roll Floyd on his side, a position in which it is easier to breathe. Thao, meanwhile, contended with anguished onlookers, who screamed at police that Floyd had stopped breathing, by ordering them to stay on the sidewalk.
In his plea agreement with prosecutors, Chauvin agreed with the prosecution assertion that Thao and Lane did and said nothing to stop Chauvin’s use of force.
Many of the onlookers, who testified at Chauvin’s state trial, are expected to be called as witnesses at the federal trial. Neither prosecutors nor defense lawyers have publicly said if they will call Chauvin to testify.
Thao had worked for the Minneapolis Police Department for eight years; Lane and Keung had joined only a few months prior to the arrest, and Chauvin was their field training officer, something their defense lawyers are expected to emphasize.
Legal experts said the prosecution might accelerate challenges to the “thin blue line” culture prevalent in US police departments that discourages individual officers from speaking out against colleagues’ misconduct.
“It does run counter to the old-style culture of law enforcement, but it is not new,” said Candace McCoy, a criminal justice professor at New York’s John Jay College. “We’ve seen this concept develop over the past decade, with several large police departments that specially train officers on a duty to intervene.”
Former officers on trial
Thao was Chauvin’s partner that day. Thao, a Hmong American, had been with the Minneapolis Police Department for around 11 years, starting as a community service officer, a program meant to foster diversity by grooming potential cops. He had been a full-fledged police officer for more than eight years.
Thao joined the force part time in 2008 while attending North Hennepin Community College. He was laid off temporarily at the end of 2009 during a budget crunch. He also previously worked as a security guard at Boston Scientific facilities in the Minneapolis area, as a supermarket stocker and as a trainer at a McDonald’s.
City records show six complaints were filed against Thao. He was also the subject of a 2017 federal lawsuit accusing him and another officer of excessive force. According to the lawsuit, Lamar Ferguson claimed that in 2014, Thao and his partner stopped him and beat him while Ferguson was on his way to his girlfriend’s house. The lawsuit was settled for $25,000.
Thao’s attorney is Robert Paule.
Lane, who is white, joined the department in early 2019 as a 35-year-old cadet, much older than most rookies. He had no complaints in his file during his short time on the force.
According to the Star Tribune, he followed three generations of men from his mother’s family into the Minneapolis Police Department, including his great-great-grandfather Michael Mealey, who was chief from 1911 to 1912.
His previous jobs included stints as a corrections officer at Hennepin County’s juvenile jail and as an assistant probation officer with a Ramsey County residential program for juvenile offenders. The University of Minnesota graduate also said on his employment forms that he had done volunteer work tutoring Somali youth and at-risk elementary school students, and with a police activities league for kids on Minneapolis’ predominantly Black north side.
Lane’s attorney is Earl Gray, who represented former Brooklyn Center officer Kim Potter, who was convicted of manslaughter in December in the shooting death of Daunte Wright. Gray also was on the defense team that won an acquittal in 2017 for former St. Anthony Officer Jeronimo Yanez in the shooting death of Philando Castile.
Kueng, who is Black, was the youngest of the four officers at the scene. He was partnered with Lane that day. He was raised by his mother in north Minneapolis.
Family members told The New York Times in 2020 that Kueng, the son of a white mother and Nigerian father, wanted to become a police officer to bridge the gap between police and the Black community. Two of his siblings have spoken out critically about his role in Floyd’s killing.
His personnel file, which says he speaks, reads and writes Russian, did not list any disciplinary actions.
Kueng was a 2018 graduate of the University of Minnesota, where he worked part-time in campus security. Like Thao, he was also a community service officer. He also worked nearly three years as a theft-prevention officer at the former Macy’s in downtown Minneapolis. And he worked short stints as a stocker at the downtown Target store, and as a youth baseball and soccer coach in Brooklyn Center.
Kueng and family members traveled to Haiti to volunteer after the 2010 earthquake, according to relatives and his attorney.
Kueng’s attorney is Tom Plunkett, who helped represent former Minneapolis Officer Mohamed Noor in the 2017 shooting death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond. Noor’s conviction for third-degree murder was overturned, but his manslaughter conviction stands.