All three former Minneapolis police officers who watched Derek Chauvin murder George Floyd in May 2020 will face prison time for their part in the fatal arrest that kicked off a summer of protests against police brutality and overreach.
The jury in the federal trial against the men determined Thursday that officers Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng, and Thomas Lane denied Floyd of his civil rights when they failed to provide the 46-year-old Black man with medical assistance. Officers Kueng and Thao were also found guilty of not intervening in the fatal arrest despite Floyd’s pleas for help, and thereby failed to save his life.
During the trial, the former officers argued that they were simply following the lead of Chauvin, who knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes on May 25, 2020, and didn’t expect the arrest to turn fatal.
“This is a reminder that all law enforcement officers, regardless of seniority, individually and independently, have a duty to intervene and provide medical aid to those in their custody,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Kovats said during a press conference following the verdict. “It’s a fundamental duty of policing. It is good policing.”
Both Kueng and Lane were less than a week on the job when they watched Chauvin, who had 19 years of experience on the force, murder Floyd. They helped restrained the Black man’s torso and legs, respectively. Thao, on the other hand, had nine years of experience but said he trusted his colleagues had the situation with Floyd under control as he kept outraged bystanders at bay.
Kueng and Lane both testified about how they were taught to never question their superiors, who had the final say on their employment with the department. Kueng, the only Black officer present at the scene of Floyd’s death, went as far as to say that he worried daily about being fired—and that Chauvin had the power to terminate him.
“Was there concern about being fired?” Kueng’s attorney asked him while on the stand.
“Every day, sir,” Kueng said. “It was clear the chain of command was not to be breached, or else.”
During the murder trial that ultimately convicted Chauvin, however, the department’s chief of police broke the so-called “Blue Wall of Silence” to explain that what Chauvin did was in violation of the department’s “training, ethics, and values.”
The three officers’ federal trial also shined a light on several shortcomings in how the Minneapolis Police Department trains its officers. Thao, who was trained in 2009, spoke about the military-style environment. For example, he said that officers were often subjected to being tased when learning about the less-lethal device and were even gassed.
Thao also shared that he was actively taught restraining maneuvers that incorporated the use of the knee on people’s upper backs—and possibly even their necks—similar to the one used by Chauvin.
When the head of the department’s homicide unit arrived on the scene the night of the murder, however, the officers said Floyd was still breathing as emergency responders arrived, even though they had previously said on body camera during the arrest footage that they couldn’t find Floyd’s pulse. They also failed to mention the severity of Chauvin’s restraint and how long he held Floyd under his knee.
“What they told me and what was on the video is totally different,” Lt. Richard Zimmerman testified, according to pool reports. “The amount of force used on Mr. Floyd, the type of force used on Mr. Floyd, the lack of doing any first aid on Mr. Floyd, and the lack of intervening and stopping each other from doing what they were doing.”
The jury’s decision comes after a month of arguments from prosecutors and defense attorneys. The trial marked the first time the three former officers appeared in court in relation to Floyd’s death. Federal prosecutors called many of the same witnesses their state counterparts called to the stand during the Chauvin trial last year.
Neama Rahmani, a former federal prosecutor and current president of the West Coast Trial Lawyers, told VICE News that the guilty verdicts in the federal case will have a tremendous impact on if the state trial against the three men will move forward at all. That’s currently scheduled for June, and all three are charged with aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter.
“Sentences in federal court tend to be longer. Rahmani said. “The question for state prosecutors is, is it worth retrying all of them in state court, and if so what would be the purpose when all of the evidence is essentially the same.”
Next, an investigation will begin to help the judge determine an appropriate sentence for each of the now convicted men.
“Although today’s verdict won’t bring George Floyd back to his family, or his friends, his community his loved ones, this outcome represents our collective affirmation to uphold George Floyd’s civil rights,” Kovak said. “The same ones afforded to all of us under the Constitution.”