‘They Watched and Did Nothing’: Trial Begins For Three Ex-Cops Present When Derek Chauvin Killed George Floyd, Defense Says Chauvin ‘Called the Shots’

The federal trial for the three ex-cops who watched and guarded against a crowd as Derek Chauvin kneeled on the neck of George Floyd for over nine minutes until he died, is underway. For their actions, the three were charged with violating the man’s civil rights.

According to The Associated Press, the prosecution came out swinging on the first day of trial. Prosecutor Samantha Trepel accused former police officers, K. Alexander Kueng (Black), Thomas Lane (white), and Tou Thao (Hmong American), of standing by and allowing Chauvin to “slowly killed George Floyd right in front of them.”

Four Minneapolis Police officers were fired and charged in connection with George Floyd’s death. From left to right: Derek Chauvin, Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao. (Photo: Screenshot/NBC News)

However, Kueng’s attorney, Tom Plunkett saw it differently, alleging that Chauvin, their senior officer, called “all the shots” during the incident that took Floyd’s life. 

On May 25, 2020, Floyd was detained by the former officers on accusations of using a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes at the Cup Foods store in the 3700 block of Chicago Ave, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Surveillance footage showed the ex-cops engaging with him at different points, and eventually trying to get him into their patrol vehicle. 

Floyd objected to being in the back seat of the police cruiser during the arrest and found himself removed from the car and handcuffed facedown with Chauvin pressing his knee into his neck for 9½ minutes.

A teenage bystander filming on her cellphone captured the 46-year-old Black man gasping for air as Lane held his legs, Kueng knelt on his back, and Thao kept the crowd gathering from coming close to help the man as he cried, choked, and called for his mother.

In her opening statements, Trepel, who works for the Justice Department’s civil rights division, said, “For second after second, minute after minute, these three CPR-trained defendants stood or knelt next to Officer Chauvin as he slowly killed George Floyd right in front of them.”

“They chose not to protect George Floyd, the man they had handcuffed and placed in their custody,” she continued.

She also stated in her remarks that the three men “watched as Mr. Floyd suffered a slow and agonizing death,” and didn’t do anything to help save the man from another officer using excessive force, NBC News reports.

The prosecution painted the scenario for the court, saying, “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. 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.”

The three different legal teams approached their opening statements differently, setting up their clients with varying defense strategies.

In addition to promising to show that Chauvin was telling everyone what to do that day, Plunkett used this time to criticize the Minneapolis Police Department for not training the officers properly, equipping them with the tools to intervene when another officer is out of control.  

One issue he raised was that Chauvin was his client’s field training officer and had “considerable sway” over his career in the department. The next point he presented was that neither his client of Lane was trained by the department’s policy on neck restraint.

Lastly, he added that Lane, as the senior responding officer (Chauvin and Thao were backup responders), should have been in charge that day. But relinquished control to Chauvin. 

The prosecution presented Kueng very differently than his attorney. She focused on his participation in restraining Floyd. She noted how he knelt on Floyd for eight out of the 9½ minutes that Chauvin was kneeling on the victim and that even after not finding a pulse, still did not render aid.

Robert Paule, Thao’s representation, opted to focus on George Floyd’s resistance to being detained. Paule contends that while Floyd’s death was tragic, it was “not a crime” because the man would not comply. He states that the video that so many have seen of the altercation did not show a full or accurate account of the day’s events.

What the video captured was plenty for the prosecution. She heard him, as he stood guard for Chauvin, say to the bystanders’ remarks about his addiction. 

“Instead of stopping Officer Chauvin from killing Mr. Floyd,” Trepel presents to the jury in her statements about Thao, “He turned the question about drugs into a taunt, saying to the crowd, ‘You see, kids, this is why you don’t do drugs.”

She noted that Thao did not heed the community’s pleas to help the man nor recognize the medical authority of an off-duty city firefighter, who came over to help after witnessing Floyd was in crisis.

Lane’s attorney, Earl Gray, presented his case, leading with defining his client as a “gentle giant” who tried to help Floyd. He noted that Lane couldn’t clearly see what Chauvin was doing to Floyd, and at one point asked the superior officer if they could turn the man over. To that request, Chauvin would say ‘No!’

Trepel addressed this in her statement. She was intentional to point out that Floyd was restrained for four minutes before that request was made. She noted that rolling him to the side was something that Lane would have learned in training on the force. She notes that it was not Chauvin that said, “No.” According to the police bodycam footage, Kueng said, “No, just leave him.” Chauvin agreed. 

“When duty required care and action, defendant Lane said nothing,” Trepel remarked. “Defendant Lane did nothing.”

Still, Gray submits that his client called the ambulance, upgraded the call for help to emergency status, and got into the ambulance with the man — assisting EMT workers by performing what he hoped would be life-saving chest compressions.

Kueng, Lane, and Thao are all charged for failing to give Floyd medical care while he was in obvious trauma. Thao and Kueng face an additional charge for not stopping Chauvin from kneeling on Floyd’s neck. The prosecution asserts that the actions (or inaction) of all three resulted in Floyd’s death. 

The prosecutor said, “We will ask you to hold these men accountable for choosing to do nothing and watch a man die.”

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