‘Slow journey to justice’: trial of three ex-police officers involved in George Floyd murder begins

The bitter arctic blast, which had Minnesota temperatures below 0F last week, didn’t stop protestors from hosting a rally as the three lesser-known police officers involved in the killing of George Floyd faced their turn in the courtroom.

A caravan of two dozen cars occupied the length of the block outside the courthouse in the state capital St Paul last week, as jury selection began in the federal civil rights trial of Tou Thao, J Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane.

Opening statements are expected on Monday, in the second trial of the closely-watched process of legal accountability after white former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, and admitted violating his civil rights in May 2020, sparking the largest racial reckoning in America’s recent history.

“The day that George Floyd was killed, in addition to Derek Chauvin as the officer that took George Floyd’s life, there were three other human beings that were there. They wore badges and guns, too. They were officers, too,” local activist Toshira Garraway told the bundled-up protesters standing in a tight circle outside of their cars.

She added: “Not one of the four officers that was there had compassion and empathy enough to intervene.”

The twin cities of Minneapolis and St Paul are now braced for the latest trial.

“Today is another milestone in the long, slow journey to justice for George Floyd,” Ben Crump, the civil rights lawyer who represented his relatives, said in a statement: “This trial will be another painful experience for the Floyd family, who must once more relive his grueling death in excruciating detail.”

It took only one day for 12 jurors and six alternates to be seated in the three former officers’ federal trial inside the heavily-barricaded courthouse. Fifteen minutes away, Chauvin’s murder trial last spring was one of the most momentous social justice cases of the century.

I don’t even count it as justice,” Steve Floyd, a community leader in Minneapolis and no relation to George, said. “I count it as accountability because I look at justice in another way: they [shouldn’t] have done that.”

A wide radius of security fences, tight police patrolling and road closures are in operation outside the federal courthouse amid concerns of mass protest.

Floyd’s murder ignited huge demonstrations across America and in many other countries, as the US Black Lives Matter movement revived and spread, although some of the protests against police brutality and entrenched racism more widely were often harshly curtailed by the police.

Chauvin, 45, and the principal protagonist in Floyd’s death had denied murder at his trial last spring, then, having been convicted and sentenced, pleaded guilty in the additional federal case in December. His case had been separated from that of his three fellow officers earlier on after all four were swiftly arrested and fired in 2020 as the terrible facts of the killing became known.

Thao, 35, Kueng, 27, and Lane, 38, have pleaded not guilty in both their civil rights case and their state case accusing them of aiding and abetting murder and, unlike Chauvin, their federal case is up first.

The three ex-officers have been indicted by the Department of Justice for willfully depriving George Floyd of his right “to be free from a police officer’s deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs”, according to the charges.

Thao and Kueng are also accused of willfully failing to “intervene to stop Defendant Chauvin’s use of unreasonable force” when Floyd was unresponsive on the ground.

In nine minutes-plus of viral bystander video capturing Floyd’s final moments, Chauvin fatally knelt on Floyd’s neck while he was handcuffed and pinned on the street. Lane and Keung held the lower portion of Floyd’s prone body down while Thao kept back members of the public who were begging the officers to spare the man as he pleaded for mercy.

The video, captured by teenager Darnella Frazier, who was on her way to a corner store where Floyd had been accused of trying to use a counterfeit bill, was instrumental in Chauvin’s conviction. It will undoubtedly be used as evidence against the three officers in the federal case.

“The defense is going to have to ask [the jury] not to believe their eyes. That’s the problem with this case because the elements are shown,” Robert Bennett, a prominent civil rights lawyer in Minneapolis specializing in police brutality cases, said.

The outcome of the federal trial may have a bearing on the three men’s state trial, scheduled for June.

“If they’re convicted on federal crimes, it may obviate the need for the state trial, although they can go ahead with both. Or if they are convicted [in the civil rights case], it might engender a [guilty] plea in the state case,” Bennett added.

Keung and Lane had been police officers for less than six months on 25 May 2020, Thao for more than eight years.

As concerns were raised last week about the perceived white majority jury, larger questions surround the race of the three defendants.

While Lane is white, Kueng is Black and Thao is of Asian descent.

“The fact that two thirds of the officers are officers of color reflects the fact that diversity alone cannot solve the problem of police violence,” Michelle Phelps, associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, said.

Steve Floyd said he believes an officer’s race makes less of a difference when they all “become blue” and join what’s known as the blue wall of silence when law enforcement close ranks over the misconduct of their own.

The initial anodyne police press release after George Floyd was killed was headlined “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction”.

But once Frazier’s mobile phone video surfaced, it became the heart of what Floyd’s family last spring called a “slam dunk” case against Chauvin, and a series of officers, from then-police chief Medaria Arradondo on down the ranks, testified against the ex-cop in a noticeable, rare turn of events in favor of a Black victims of police violence.

But while some may think that the criminal and civil rights trials of these four former officers is a first step in holding police officers accountable, others are less optimistic.

“If you were to show the video – that I’ve never seen – of George Floyd being choked out for over nine minutes to a Black person living in the US under slavery, they would probably take a wild gamble that nothing has changed,” Toussaint Morrison, a Minneapolis activist, said. “So locking those boys up doesn’t mean justice to me.”

Unlike Chauvin’s murder trial, which was streamed and viewed across the globe, cameras are not allowed in federal courtrooms.

But that doesn’t undermine the significance of Thao, Kueng and Lane’s civil rights trial.

And while voters ultimately rejected proposals to replace the Minneapolis police department with a public safety unit after Floyd was killed, demands for equity and law enforcement reform persist.

“You can’t un-know or unsee the extremes of public violence and modern day attempts to lynch people of color in Minnesota – and that goes for Black and Native folks and folks of color,” Morrison said.

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