Attorneys for four former Minneapolis officers charged in the killing of George Floyd say each should get his own trial, as the officers point fingers at one another.
Prosecutors say the officers should be tried together because the nature of the charges and evidence is similar and “it is impossible to evaluate any individual defendant’s conduct in a vacuum”.
The former officers appeared in court on Friday for a hearing on several issues, including the prosecution request to hold a joint trial. Other issues included defense requests to move the trial away from Minneapolis, to sequester the jury and keep jurors anonymous.
Before the hearing, several dozen protesters convened in front of the courthouse, chanting, “No justice, no peace.”
Judge Peter Cahill did not immediately rule on most of the issues before him. He did agree to a defense request, however, to remove one prosecutor from the case.
Floyd, who was in handcuffs, died on 25 May after Derek Chauvin pressed his knee against his neck for almost nine minutes. Floyd managed to say he couldn’t breathe and pleaded for mercy while onlookers begged the officer to stop.
The other officers variously assisted in restraining Floyd or warded off onlookers, one of whom was filming the incident, video that went viral and sparked mass protests.
Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter. Thomas Lane, J Kueng and Tou Thao are charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and aiding and abetting manslaughter.
A trial is scheduled for March.
Chauvin, who is in state custody, made his first courtroom appearance, having attended previous hearings via videoconference. Rather than wearing an orange jumpsuit, as he had done in remote proceedings, he wore a gray suit. He was neither handcuffed nor shackled.
Chauvin did not make eye contact with any of his co-defendants as he walked into the courtroom. Kueng glanced at him and Lane looked over.
In a court filing, prosecutors wrote: “All four defendants worked together to murder Floyd: Chauvin, Kueng, and Lane pinned Floyd face-down, while Thao stopped the crowd from intervening, enabling the other defendants to maintain their positions. Defendants also discussed and coordinated their actions throughout the incident,”
Prosecutors say witnesses and family members would be traumatized by multiple trials. But defense attorneys are pushing for separate trials, saying they are likely to offer “antagonistic” defenses, and evidence against one officer could negatively affect another’s right to a fair trial.
Attempts at finger-pointing are prevalent throughout filings in the case. Attorneys for Lane and Kueng have argued that their clients were new officers, following Chauvin’s lead. Thao’s attorney, Bob Paule, has said his client’s role was “absolutely distinct”, because he was on crowd control, securing the scene, while the other three restrained Floyd.
Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, wrote that prosecutors must prove Chauvin intended to assault Floyd, but must also show the other officers knew of Chauvin’s intent.
“The other defendants are clearly saying that, if a crime was committed, they neither knew about it nor assisted in it,” Nelson wrote. “They blame Chauvin.”
Chauvin points fingers at the others. Nelson wrote that Lane and Kueng, the officers who responded to the initial call from a shop owner who suspected Floyd of trying to use forged money, initiated contact with Floyd before Chauvin and Thao arrived, and that Chauvin believed Floyd was overdosing on fentanyl.
Nelson wrote that while Lane and Kueng called for a paramedic and believed Floyd was “on something”, they did not elevate the call to one of more urgency or give medical assistance.
“Instead, they struggled to subdue Mr Floyd and force him into their squad car, likely exacerbating his condition considerably,” Nelson wrote, adding that Chauvin could reasonably argue that their inaction led to Floyd’s death.
“If EMS had arrived just three minutes sooner, Mr Floyd may have survived. If Kueng and Lane had chosen to de-escalate instead of struggle, Mr Floyd may have survived. If Kueng and Lane had recognized the apparent signs of an opioid overdose and rendered aid, such as administering naloxone, Mr Floyd may have survived.”
Attorneys for all four men have also asked that the trial be moved from Minneapolis, saying pre-trial publicity has made it impossible for them to receive a fair trial.