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Former Minneapolis officers plead not guilty to federal civil rights charges

Andy Mannix, Star Tribune on

Published in News & Features

MINNEAPOLIS — In their first substantive appearance in federal court, four former Minneapolis police officers pleaded not guilty Tuesday on charges they abused their positions of authority to detain George Floyd.

The charges, which run separate from the state's cases against the same officers, allege Derek Chauvin, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao used the "color of the law" to deprive Floyd of his constitutional rights to be "free from the use of unreasonable force" when Chauvin pinned Floyd down with a knee on his neck for more than nine minutes, and the other three did nothing to stop him. "This offense resulted in bodily injury to, and the death of George Floyd," the federal charges state.

All four former officers appeared virtually for the hearing in U.S. Magistrate Judge Tony Leung's courtroom. Leung heard about 40 motions, mostly on routine matters, such as filing deadlines and whether the attorneys plan to call expert witnesses at trial.

Attorneys for Lane and Kueng argued that the indictment inaccurately cites when the officers started working for the Minneapolis Police Department, offering a small window into a defense likely to focus on the officers being rookies who looked to their superiors — including Chauvin, their field training officer — for how to act. The charging document says Lane and Kueng started with Minneapolis police in December 2019, but the defense attorneys said they were only in training at that time. When they detained Floyd, they had only worked a few shifts, said Lane attorney Earl Gray.

"He did take the oath in 2019," Gray said. "However, he was not on his own, and by that I mean not making decisions on his own, until four days before the incident on May 25," said Gray. He said this distinction is important, given the jury will decide whether Lane and Kueng should have done more to intervene.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Manda Sertich refuted the argument, saying the department records show them as being sworn-in beginning in December. "It's hard to see how there could be an argument made" to the contrary, Sertich said.

Kueng's, Lane's and Thao's attorneys also asked Leung to sever their cases from Chauvin, meaning they would be tried separately. A jury convicted Chauvin of second-degree murder in the state's case earlier this year, and the high-profile verdict will prejudice the other three to a jury, their attorneys said.

"His actions are going to be held against us in this trial," Gray said. "Everybody knows Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder. Are we going to be presumed innocent? I doubt it."


There is currently no trial date set for the federal cases, and Leung didn't make decisions on the motions on the spot Tuesday.

As the federal case moves forward, Thao, Kueng and Lane are simultaneously heading toward a separate trial for the state's charges of aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter. Chauvin was tried separately and found guilty in April. In June, a Hennepin County judge sentenced Chauvin to 22 1/2 years in prison.

Chauvin faces an additional stand-alone federal charge unrelated to Floyd's killing. He is due in court Thursday for an arraignment on that charge.

That indictment relates to a violent arrest captured on body-camera footage, which prosecutors for the state's case described in court documents, citing it as evidence of Chauvin's brand of violent policing when dealing with suspects who refuse to bend to his will.

On Sept. 4, 2017, Chauvin and another officer responded to a domestic assault, in which a mother said her juvenile son and daughter assaulted her. The officers arrived to find the 14-year-old son lying on the floor in the back of the house, on his phone, and ordered him to get up because he was under arrest. When the boy refused to comply, Chauvin grabbed him and wordlessly struck the teen in the head with his flashlight multiple times.

The video shows Chauvin using a neck restraint, choking the boy unconscious, then placing him in a prone position with a knee in his back for about 17 minutes until paramedics arrived, according to court documents.

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