Attorneys for two former rookie Minneapolis police officers on Thursday rejected accusations that their clients aided and abetted the killing of George Floyd, casting blame instead on a senior officer who allegedly ignored his younger counterparts.
Early signs of a legal defense strategy began to emerge when former officers J Alexander Kueng, Thomas K. Lane and Tou Thao made their first court appearances in the Memorial Day killing of Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died in police custody.
Each officer is charged with one count of aiding and abetting second-degree murder and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter. The charges allege that they did not intervene when their former colleague and 19-year police veteran Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, all while Floyd pleaded with them and told them him he couldn’t breathe. All four were fired after Floyd’s death.
Chauvin, 44, of Oakdale, was charged last week and is being held in lieu of $1 million bail. He faces second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter charges and is scheduled to make his first appearance Monday.
On Thursday, Hennepin County District Judge Paul Scoggin set bail for each of the other three at $1 million without conditions, or $750,000 with conditions. But their initial appearance, normally routine, turned contentious.
“What is my client supposed to do but follow what the [senior] officer says?” Lane’s attorney, Earl Gray, argued in court. “The strength of this case, your honor, in my opinion is extremely weak.”
Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank, who is prosecuting the case with assistance from the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, argued for high bail amounts, noting that the charges were “very serious” and had drawn such intense public interest that the former officers were a flight risk. Each defense attorney rejected the claim, and asked for between $50,000 and $250,000 in bail.
Defense attorneys said Kueng, 26, of Plymouth was working his third shift ever as a full-time officer and Lane, 37, of St. Paul was working his fourth day as a full-time officer on the day they encountered Floyd.
Video of his arrest showed bystanders pleading with the officers to stop as Lane restrained Floyd’s legs and Kueng held onto his back while Floyd, cuffed, lay stomach-down in the street.
A bystander’s video also recorded Thao, 34, of Coon Rapids standing watch nearby and brushing aside witnesses’ concerns.
“What was [Lane] supposed to do … go up to Mr. Chauvin and grab him and throw him off?” said Gray, arguing that there was no evidence to charge his client.
Kueng’s attorney, Thomas Plunkett, also attempted to distance his client from Chauvin’s actions.
“At all times Mr. Kueng and Mr. Lane turned their attention to that 19-year veteran,” Plunkett said. “[Kueng] was trying — they were trying to communicate that this situation needs to change direction.”
Charging documents show that Lane asked twice if they should roll Floyd onto his side and was rebuffed by Chauvin. Kueng took Floyd’s pulse and told his colleagues, “I couldn’t find one,” according to the criminal complaint.
Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for about two minutes after Kueng’s remarks, the charges state.
Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, declined to comment on the statements of the other officers’ attorneys.
Thao’s attorney, Robert Paule, did not shift blame onto his client’s partner. Thao arrived at the scene with Chauvin.
Paule told the court Thao had given a statement to investigators from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) on Tuesday and that he is not a flight risk because he has deep roots in the community.
Thao is a lifelong resident of the metro area, is married and has children, Paule said in arguing for a lower bail.
Several of the attorneys sought to humanize the officers, with Plunkett beginning his remarks by offering condolences to Floyd’s family,
Kueng is a black man who grew up in north Minneapolis with a single mom who adopted four at-risk children from the community, Plunkett said.
“He turned to law enforcement because he wanted to make that community a better place,” he said.
Kueng has always lived within 10 miles of his childhood home, was captain of the soccer team at Patrick Henry High School, where he graduated, coached youth soccer and baseball, and volunteered to build a school in Haiti, Plunkett said.
Lane previously worked as a juvenile counselor at a few “juvenile places” in the Twin Cities and once received a community service award from Mayor Jacob Frey and Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo for volunteering with children, Gray told the court.
Lane also provided a statement about Floyd’s killing to two sergeants, gave a “lengthy” statement to investigators from the BCA and jumped into the ambulance that arrived at the scene and performed CPR on Floyd, Gray added.
Floyd was pronounced dead at 9:25 p.m. at HCMC after first responders and ER staff worked on him for about an hour.
Frank was unmoved by Gray’s arguments.
“We recognize the statements that this defendant made, but beyond that [he] did nothing but hold the victim down [and] started CPR too late,” Frank said.
Lane and Kueng had responded about 8:08 p.m. to a call that a man used a counterfeit $20 bill at the Cup Foods on the corner of Chicago Avenue and E. 38th Street. They found Floyd sitting in a car nearby, handcuffed him and attempted to put him in their squad car. Chauvin and Thao arrived to assist.
While charging documents said Chauvin pulled Floyd out of the squad, Gray said Thursday that Floyd resisted arrest, “asserted himself” and later “flew out” of the squad through his own actions.
Gray said he would file a motion to argue that there’s not enough evidence to prosecute his client. Oral arguments will likely be presented at a hearing on June 29, the next time Lane, Kueng and Thao are scheduled to appear in court.
“I’m not claiming [Lane] was following orders,” Gray said after Thursday’s hearings. “I’m claiming he thought what he was doing was right because he asked the training officer [Chauvin], ‘Should we roll [Floyd] over?’ Twice.”
Asked whether Lane had a responsibility to get Chauvin off Floyd’s neck, Gray said, “I guess the jury will decide that. In my opinion, no. It would be unreasonable for my client to go up and drag Chauvin off the deceased. … You’ve got a 20-year [sic] cop in the front and my guy’s back there with four days and he says, ‘Should we roll him over?’ and [Chauvin] says, ‘No, we’ll wait for the ambulance’ twice. … I don’t know what you’re supposed to do as a cop.”