4 ex-cops in Floyd's killing plead not guilty at first federal hearing

A sketching of the federal court hearing
A courtroom sketch shows U.S. District Magistrate Judge Tony Leung (top left), prosecutor Manda Sertich, Derek Chauvin, attorney Eric Nelson, J. Alexander Kueng, attorney Thomas Plunkett, attorney Robert Paule, Tou Thao, attorney Earl Gray and Thomas Lane in a teleconference call for a federal court hearing Tuesday.
Cedric Hohnstadt for MPR News

Updated: 1:25 p.m.

The four former Minneapolis police officers federally charged with violating George Floyd’s constitutional rights pleaded not guilty in their first appearance together at a federal court hearing Tuesday morning.

The grand jury indictment alleges that the four men violated Floyd’s constitutional rights in ways that “resulted in bodily injury to, and the death of, George Floyd.” Former officers Derek Chauvin, Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao attended the hearing via video conferencing. 

Chauvin, who was convicted this spring of murdering Floyd and later sentenced to 22 1/2 years in prison, appeared from Oak Park Heights prison.

Chauvin is federally charged for holding Floyd on the ground with his knee on his neck for more than nine minutes. Thao and Kueng are charged for failing to intervene with “Chauvin’s use of unreasonable force.” All four are charged with violating Floyd’s right to be free from an “officer’s deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs.” 

Four former Minneapolis police officers charged in George Floyd case.
From left: former Minneapolis police officers Derek Chauvin, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao.
Hennepin County Sheriff's Office via AP

Tuesday’s arraignment and motions hearing was overseen by U.S. District Magistrate Judge Tony Leung, and included a proposal to sever the trials of the three other defendants from Chauvin

Thao’s attorneys, Robert and Natalie Paule, argued in a filing in August that jurors may have trouble distinguishing between the acts of the different defendants and that Thao would receive a more impartial trial if he were tried separately.

The judge pointed out that joining defendants is more common in federal court, and asked Thao’s attorney Robert Paule why it would make sense to sever Thao’s case from Chauvin.

“There will be much evidence that will be brought into play in regard to Mr. Chauvin that would not be brought into play if my client was severed,” Paule told the court.

Leung asked the defense attorneys why he should sever the former officer cases when the alleged offenses all occurred during such a short timeline: Doesn't "each of their separate actions or inactions needs to be evaluated in the context of the others actions and inactions?"

Lane’s attorney Earl Gray told the court that jurors would associate his client with Chauvin’s murder conviction.

“I doubt if you’ll find anybody in that jury pool that did not know that Derek Chauvin was convicted of killing George Floyd,” Gray said. “That’s substantially prejudicial in this case.”

Federal prosecutor Manda Sertich countered that any requests for severance would be “premature.”

“Any juror who is sitting there and knows that [Chauvin was convicted] is going to know that, whether or not Mr. Chauvin is sitting there in the courtroom,” Sertich said.

Gray also questioned why wording in the indictment said Lane had been working as a police officer since December 2019, arguing that he’d only worked four shifts as a full time officer after serving as a recruit. At issue, Gray said, was the charge that Lane failed to aid Floyd, and that the indictment is allowed in the jury room during deliberations.

“Common sense dictates that a law officer who has four days on the job would be less apt to intervene,” Gray said. “What’s amazing about Mr. Lane’s case is he did attempt to intervene at least twice, and he also took part in attempts to resuscitate Mr. Floyd.”

Prosecutors said the date referred to the date that Lane was sworn in as a police officer.

The judge also heard arguments over how much evidence prosecutors will be required to turn over to defense teams. Prosecutors said in their court filing that they’ve already turned over more than 370 gigabytes of evidence, including documents, audio and video footage. 

The judge didn't make any rulings on the motions Tuesday, but asked all the parties to file briefs outlining their arguments.

Thao, Kueng and Lane still face state criminal charges for aiding and abetting in murder and manslaughter for Floyd’s killing. That trial is scheduled to start in March, although the judge overseeing the case has said it depends on the timing of the federal trial. 

Another hearing later this week

Chauvin is also scheduled to appear at a hearing on Thursday in federal court on a separate charge, for an incident during which he allegedly knelt on a 14-year-old boy for 17 minutes

Defendants found guilty of causing bodily injury under these statutes can be imprisoned for between one and 10 years. Those convicted for actions resulting in death can be sentenced to prison for any length of time, or even a death sentence, although legal experts say that’s not likely. 

Although very few officers are charged with federal civil rights violations, there have been some successful prosecutions. Former St. Paul officer Brett Palkowitsch was convicted in 2019 for kicking an unarmed Black man while a K-9 dog mauled the man’s leg. Palkowitsch was sentenced to six years in May. Another former Minneapolis police officer named Ty Jindra is scheduled to go on trial next month for stealing drugs from people who were arrested

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