Even though former Minneapolis police officers Tou Thao, J. Kueng, and Thomas Lane are the ones on trial for their inaction during the death of George Floyd, their former colleague who murdered the 46-year-old Black man was the center of attention during opening statements.
While arguing that the three officers shouldn’t be convicted of denying Floyd his civil rights during his May 2020 arrest, their respective attorneys redirected the lion’s share of the blame to their superior officer at the time, Derek Chauvin, who’s now serving 22 and a half years in prison. The attorneys all mentioned that their clients weren’t nearly as senior as Chauvin and deferred to him for judgment on how to best get Floyd into their custody.
Keung and Lane were both less than a week on the job, and Thao had served for nine years, which still pales in comparison to Chauvin’s 19 years of experience.
“You’ll see and hear officer Chauvin call all of the shots,” Kueng’s attorney Thomas Plunkett told the courtroom, referring to Chauvin taking the lead after he showed up to the scene along with Thao, according to pool reports.
Kueng, Lane, and Thao are facing life in prison on charges of depriving Floyd of his civil rights by failing to provide him with medical assistance as he died under Chauvin’s knee. Both Kueng and Thao face an additional charge of failing to intervene while Chauvin placed him in a deadly hold.
Lane, however, managed to avoid the additional charge, likely because he asked twice, on bodycam video, if they should reposition Floyd so he could breathe better. Lane’s attorney Earl Gray also pointed out that his client dropped the suggestion after Chauvin refused, according to Minnesota CBS affiliate WCCO.
The attorney also said that Lane only had his hands on Floyd’s feet for the duration of the deadly restraint and therefore couldn’t see how restrictive Chauvin’s hold was, according to the Assoicated Press. The cop even provided chest compressions to Floyd once EMS arrived on the scene.
Thao’s attorney Robert Paule also brought up his client’s uncertainty.
"You will see my client standing there trying to figure out what to do," Paule said during his opening statements, according to the Star Tribune, speaking about the moments Floyd was under Chauvin. He later said that Thao acted as a human traffic cone the day he kept the outraged crowd at bay during the arrest. He acknowledged Floyd’s death was a terrible occurrence but argued that his client shouldn’t take the fall for his part in what Chauvin did.
“A tragedy is not a crime,” Paule said in court, according to pool reports.
In addition to bringing up the issues of hierarchy on the force, Plunkett blamed the Minneapolis Police Department for inadequately training new officers like his client for situations like Floyd’s fatal arrest.
On the other hand, Assistant U.S. Attorney Samantha Trepel argued what many observers expected: that these officers were sufficiently trained enough to act, regardless of their level of experience.
“For second after second, minute after minute, these three CPR-trained defendants stood or knelt next to Officer Chauvin as he slowly killed George Floyd right in front of them,” Trepel said in court, according to the Associated Press. “They chose not to protect George Floyd, the man they had handcuffed and placed in their custody.”
While Kueng and Lane can point to their inexperience as a defense, prosecutors tried to poke holes in this argument. Trepel specifically referenced the Minneapolis Police Department adage, “In your custody is in your care,” a motto that came up during Chauvin’s murder trial as well, to show that the superior officer’s presence shouldn’t have nullified their duties.
“They continued applying force rather than reassessing the situation as they were trained,” Trepel said Monday, according to pool reports.
“Prosecutors said being a rookie is not an excuse. You get trained in the academy that you have to help others. The fact that your superior officer’s telling you something is not an excuse,” former federal prosecutor and current president of the West Coast Trial Lawyers Neama Rahmani told VICE News. “I think these officers have a defense here and the government is acknowledging it by discussing it and addressing it head-on in their opening statement.”
After Chauvin murdered Floyd, the so-called “Blue Wall of Silence,” the unspoken code of conduct that keeps officers loyal to each other, especially during times of criticism, started to crack. Police chiefs around the country began speaking out about the horror of Chauvin’s actions, and Chauvin’s chief even testified during his murder trial that kneeling on someone’s neck “in no way, shape, or form” aligns with their department’s policy.
The three officers on trial appear to be taking the same stance, especially since Chauvin has already been convicted of state charges and last month pleaded guilty to federal ones.
The four former officers were scheduled to stand trial together, despite their best efforts. But with Chauvin’s guilty plea—and him no longer involved in the trial—the other three former cops have a much better chance at earning a not guilty verdict.
Gray confirmed during his arguments that jurors will hear from Lane during the trial. Their willingness to allow prosecutors to question him is a show of how confident they are in their case.