Attorneys for four former Minneapolis officers charged in the killing of George Floyd say that each client should get his own trial, as the officers try to diminish their roles in the Black man’s death by pointing fingers at one another.
Prosecutors say all four 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 are scheduled to appear in court on Friday for a hearing on several issues, including the prosecution’s request to hold a joint trial. Other issues that will be argued include defense requests to move the trial away from Minneapolis and to sequester the jury and keep jurors anonymous.
Floyd, who was in handcuffs, died on 25 May after Derek Chauvin pressed his knee against his neck for almost nine minutes, as 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 fatal incident in a 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.
Defense requests to dismiss charges will not be addressed at Friday’s hearing. A trial is scheduled for March 2021.
Friday’s hearing will also mark the first time Chauvin is expected to appear in a courtroom. He is in state custody and has attended previous hearings via videoconference.
Prosecutors say the case should proceed with one trial because the evidence – including witness statements, body-camera video and police department policy on use of force – is similar for each officer. Prosecutors say the officers also acted in close concert.
“Here, 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 wrote in a court filing.
Prosecutors also say witnesses and Floyd’s family members would likely 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 already prevalent throughout court filings in the case. Attorneys for Lane and Kueng have argued that their clients were new officers, who were following Chauvin’s lead.
Thao’s attorney, Bob Paule, has said that his client’s role was “absolutely distinct” from the others, because he was on crowd control and was securing the scene – while the other three restrained Floyd.
Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, also wrote that his client’s case is different. Nelson said prosecutors must prove Chauvin intended to assault Floyd, but they must also show that the other officers knew of Chauvin’s intent before it happened.
“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.”
But Chauvin also 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 believes 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,” Nelson wrote.
Attorneys for all four men have also asked that the trial be moved from Minneapolis, saying that pre-trial publicity has made it impossible for them to receive a fair trial.