The three former Minneapolis police officers charged with violating George Floyd's civil rights ignored their training and did nothing to save Floyd's life as fellow Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for 9½ minutes, a prosecutor told jurors Monday during opening statements in the men's federal trial.
"They watched as Mr. Floyd suffered a slow and agonizing death," said the federal prosecutor, Samantha Trepel.
She said the law requires police officers to intervene — to stop police officers they see using excessive force and to provide medical aid.
"Failing to do so is a crime," Trepel said.
The former officers, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao, are charged with depriving Floyd of his civil rights while acting under government authority. Kueng and Thao face an additional charge of not intervening to stop Chauvin from using excessive force.
An attorney for Lane said Monday that he will testify in his own defense, potentially marking the first time any of the three men has spoken publicly about the day Floyd was killed.
Floyd died May 25, 2020, after Chauvin pinned his neck under his knee for more than 9 minutes while Floyd was facedown and handcuffed. Kueng knelt on Floyd's back, Lane held down his legs, and Thao stood nearby and kept bystanders at bay. Trepel said the defendants had been trained extensively about the danger of leaving people facedown and handcuffed and about the importance of turning people on their sides to keep them breathing.
"On the ground, under Chauvin's knee, Mr. Floyd said 'I can't breathe' not just once, not just twice, but 25 times as he lay on the ground," Trepel said. "After Mr. Floyd lost the ability to speak, the people on the sidewalk spoke for him. They watched in horror as they saw one officer forcing the breath out of Mr. Floyd and two other officers holding him down and one other standing by and keeping people away."
Attorneys for Thao and Kueng sought to put distance between them and the brutal scene of Floyd's death, which was recorded on widely seen bystander video.
Thao's attorney Robert Paule pushed jurors to consider the events that occurred before the teenager who captured the video began recording, among them that Floyd resisted arrest and acted erratically when Kueng and Lane responded to the corner store where Floyd was alleged to have passed a fake $20 bill.
Paule said Floyd's death was a "tragedy."
"However, a tragedy is not a crime," he said.
Thomas Plunkett, the attorney representing Kueng, focused on his client's inexperience, saying Kueng, a rookie officer, was let down by the Minneapolis Police Department and its training practices. Kueng was less than three shifts into his career and deferred to Chauvin, the most experienced officer at the scene, Plunkett said.
Earl Gray, Lane's attorney, said Lane "did everything he possibly could to help" Floyd.
"If there was ever a case where the government will fail to prove willful indifference, it is this case," Gray said. "This is a perversion of justice, ladies and gentlemen."
He said it was important for jurors to know that Lane, whom he referred to as a "gentle giant," had asked Chauvin whether they should roll Floyd over and that Chauvin said no.
In her opening statement, however, Trepel said Floyd had been restrained for four minutes before Lane asked whether they should roll him on his side — which she said he had learned in training. She said that Kueng responded, "No just leave him," and that Chauvin agreed. "So defendant Lane did nothing," Trepel said.
"When duty required care and action, defendant Lane said nothing," Trepel said. "Defendant Lane did nothing."
Trepel said Kueng knelt on Floyd for eight minutes and was more concerned with a piece of gravel in the tire of a police car than with rendering aid, even as witnesses pleaded with him to help Floyd.
"Even after Kueng checked Floyd's pulse twice and did not find one. Watch what Kueng doesn't do," Trepel said.
Kueng never rolled Floyd over, administered CPR or told Chauvin to stop — even two minutes after he had told Chauvin he could not find a pulse, she said.
Trepel said that Thao, who was Chauvin's partner, had asked Floyd, "What are you on?" and that he ignored the pleas of the bystanders, including a woman who had identified herself as an off-duty city firefighter, to check Floyd's pulse.
"Instead of stopping Officer Chauvin from killing Mr. Floyd, he turned the question about drugs into a taunt, saying to the crowd, 'You see, kids, this is why you don't do drugs,'" Trepel told jurors.
All three officers knew they had a duty to protect a suspect in their custody, she said.