The trial of Derek Chauvin gripped the nation for the past few weeks, but few people were watching as closely as the three other officers who were on the scene that day last May and now face their own charges connected to the murder of George Floyd.
Former Minneapolis police officers Tou Thao, Thomas Lane, and J. Alexander Kueng are being treated as accomplices to Chauvin’s crimes by the state. Each man is charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder, and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter.
Had Chauvin been found not guilty, the three other cops would have likely also walked free.
“We would have been very unlikely to see anything else on the matter move forward,” Andrew Gordon, deputy director of community legal services at the Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis, told VICE News. “My guess is that the trial in August would have been cancelled outright.”
But with Chauvin found guilty on all three charges against him, Kueng, Lane, and Thao’s chances of going to prison are greater than ever.
“They've proven that the murder occurred,” Daniel Medwed, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University's School of Law, told VICE News. “Now, the focus is all on whether the officers essentially facilitated it. And the key point for prosecutors is showing that they engaged in active behavior.”
How Complicit Was Each Cop in Floyd’s Murder?
Although the three officers are charged with the same crimes, they did not all play the same role during Floyd’s arrest. Those differences will be crucial to their defense when they are tried together in Hennepin County Court in August.
Lane and Kueng restrained Floyd’s torso and legs before his death, according to graphic video evidence presented during Chauvin’s trial. That video, which was damning for Chauvin, is almost certain to make another appearance in Lane and Kueng’s trial come August.
“To the extent that they physically helped to physically restrain Floyd, and basically set the table for Chauvin, that really hurts them,” Medwed explained. “In order for Chauvin to kill Floyd, he had to have Floyd in a prone position, a position of vulnerability. How did Floyd get there? Well, these two other officers helped get him there, and that's a very strong case for assistance.”
As for officer Thao, who kept bystanders at bay as Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, his distance from Floyd potentially gives him a better defense than Lane and Kueng. Prosecutors will be tasked with proving Thao is culpable at all.
“Can Thao’s crowd control role be construed as acting like a lookout for a crime? Or when he was present at the scene, was he just like doing his job, and not really aware of what was happening behind him?” Medwed said. “He was a few feet away, not right next to Chauvin. One of his defense arguments could be, ‘I just thought an arrest was happening. I didn't think this was going to be murder.’”
Thao’s defense may be complicated, however, thanks to the vocal bystanders who witnessed Floyd’s murder, many of whom played a significant role in prosecutors' case against Chauvin. Dr. David Thomas, a retired detective and justice studies professor at Florida Gulf Coast University, told VICE News that we can expect to see prosecutors argue that Thao’s inaction violated Minnesota Police Department policy.
“You have a duty as a police officer to intervene. Hell, that’s a part of your oath,” Thomas said. “The crowd wasn’t trying to punch the officers. They're just yelling and screaming. And it is incumbent upon [Thao] to look and see if he feels that it's warranted to step in and stop it. And he didn’t.”
Will the “Blue Wall of Silence” Break Again?
Video evidence alone won’t be the only thing Kueng, Thao, and Lane will have to be worry about during their trial.
During Chauvin’s trial, an unprecedented number of police officers and law enforcement experts, including MPD Chief Medaria Arradondo, testified against him. Their testimonies were a rare show of dissent within law enforcement against an American cop charged with a serious crime, and they told jurors plainly that Chauvin’s actions did not reflect how police officers are trained.
As to whether the public will see a similar show of disapproval from Minnesota police against Chauvin’s co-defendants remains to be seen. But prosecutors will almost certainly try to make the case that Kueng and Lane, who held Floyd in a prone position, were acting against their training as well.
“They're gonna have to talk about not just the neck, but about the weight on the different parts of the body and how they were literally shutting down Floyd’s respiratory system,” Thomas said, adding that the “use of force” experts at Chauvin’s trial will likely appear again in August.
But just because law enforcement testified against one of their own during the Chauvin trial, it doesn’t mean they’ll do the same for the other cops who were involved in the arrest.
“With these other three officers, I think the Blue Wall might be shaky, but I don’t know if it’ll crumble,” Medwed said.
Chauvin was convicted of second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. He’s scheduled to be sentenced in mid-June.
Kueng, Thao, and Lane each face up to 40 years in prison.