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What you need to know about federal trial this week of 3 ex-officers in George Floyd’s death

Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane, all face Justice Department charges of abusing their position as police officers to deprive Floyd of his constitutional rights

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From left, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao.
Courtesy photos / Hennepin County Sheriff's Office
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MINNEAPOLIS -- The federal civil rights trial for three former Minneapolis police officers indicted in connection with George Floyd's killing is set to begin Thursday. The men, Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane, all face Justice Department charges of abusing their position as police officers to deprive Floyd of his constitutional rights when another officer, Derek Chauvin, kneeled on Floyd's neck for more than nine minutes and the others did not intervene during an encounter on May 25, 2020. "This offense resulted in bodily injury to, and the death of George Floyd," the charges state.

Chauvin pleaded guilty in December to similar federal charges stemming from Floyd's death and another case involving a juvenile victim after his April conviction in Hennepin County District Court of the murder of Floyd. Chauvin is currently serving a 22½-year sentence in state prison and awaiting sentencing on the federal charges. Here is what you need to know about the federal trial for the other three officers. They are also awaiting trial on state charges, but the date has not been set.

Who is going to trial?

Former Minneapolis police officers Thao, Kueng and Lane. Chauvin was the fourth defendant in this case, but he pleaded guilty to the charges in December. Chauvin is now awaiting sentencing.

What are the federal charges the former officers are facing?

All three are charged with using the "color of the law" to deprive Floyd of his civil rights on May 25, 2020, specifically the "right to be free from a police officer's deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs." In other words, they saw Floyd was clearly in need of help, but they willfully declined to give him any, "thereby acting with deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of harm to Floyd" and contributing to his death.

Kueng and Thao face an additional charge alleging they knew Chauvin was holding his knee on Floyd's neck, though Floyd did not resist and became unresponsive, and they "willfully failed to intervene" to stop Chauvin's use of unreasonable force. All three officers pleaded not guilty to the charges.

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What potential sentence are the former officers facing in the federal trial?

Sentences for violating an individual's civil rights can vary greatly, depending on the circumstances. In the most serious cases, in which the violation results in death, the charges are punishable by a range of imprisonment, up to life, or the death penalty.

When is the trial expected to get underway?

Jury selection is scheduled to begin Thursday in a courtroom at the Warren E. Burger Federal Building in downtown St. Paul. U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson will preside over the trial. Magnuson said proceedings will start around 9:30 to 10 a.m. every day and end by 5 p.m. He said he expects the 12 jurors and six alternates to be selected in two days — far faster than the two weeks needed to pick Chauvin's jury — so opening statements will begin Jan. 24.

How will the jury be selected?

A questionnaire was sent to randomly selected Minnesotans late last year. Based on those answers, the judge has asked a group of 256 potentially qualified jurors to report to the courthouse on Thursday. The judge and attorneys will ask these prospective jurors a series of questions designed to determine which are capable of arriving at a fair verdict, a process known as "voir dire." They will eventually winnow down the jury pool to 18 jurors, which includes six alternates.

Will the trial be televised?

No. Unlike the state's trial of Chauvin, the federal court will not allow cameras in the courtroom.

Will reporters be allowed inside the courtroom?

Due to COVID-19 concerns, the judge is allowing only five journalists (including a sketch artist) — selected by a random lottery system — inside the courtroom during proceedings. Most of the media will be watching a live feed from an overflow room.

What if the jury or judge tests positive for COVID-19?

Magnuson says he is extremely concerned about a virus outbreak in the courtroom. It has happened before. Last year, when a juror in a terrorism trial tested positive for COVID-19, the judge postponed the trial for two weeks, then resumed. Court officials say it's theoretically possible — but unlikely — that an outbreak could cause a mistrial. Magnuson has asked attorneys on both sides to hasten the pace of their cases to avoid the chances of this happening.

Why is the trial taking place in St. Paul instead of Minneapolis?

In federal court, trials are assigned randomly to judges, and Magnuson happens to be based at St. Paul's Warren E. Berger courthouse. The city will be closing down some streets and limiting parking and bike lanes during the trial.

How long will the trial take?

No one knows. Magnuson said he wants to finish in two weeks, but that would be very quick. For context, it took two weeks just to select a jury in the state's trial of Chauvin last spring, and the full trial lasted five weeks. Prosecutors have also submitted a list of 48 potential witnesses — some take the stand for minutes or hours, others days — but say they don't plan to call all of them.

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What security measures are in place at the courthouse?

The federal building has been reinforced with metal perimeter fencing and parking will be limited in the surrounding area. Federal authorities will be responsible for security inside the building and on the property.
St. Paul police are planning to increase the presence of officers downtown during the trial. The department is coordinating with the East Metro Response Group that formed ahead of Chauvin's trial last spring — and consists of municipal and county law enforcement groups in Ramsey, Washington and Dakota counties — to help with extra staffing needs if they arise.

Why are the three former officers being tried together?

Multiple defendants may be tried together when charges stem from the same set of circumstances. In this case, all four defendants were charged in a single indictment related to the same incident. A federal magistrate judge in November denied requests from attorneys for the three former officers to sever their trial from that of Chauvin, but that became moot when Chauvin pleaded guilty.

How is the federal trial different from their state trial?

The cases involved the same three defendants, but they are completely separate. In the state's case, the former officers face charges of breaking state laws by aiding and abetting second-degree murder and manslaughter. Federal cases deal with violation of federal laws. They are prosecuted by Minnesota's U.S. Attorney's Office, which is led by a lawyer appointed by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. There is no scheduled date for the state trial, but a judge has asked the attorneys to select one between March 2022 and January 2023.

When does the former officers' state trial begin?

The state trial has been postponed from its planned March date. It has not yet been rescheduled, but Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill ordered the attorneys to meet before Jan. 15 to select a new trial date between March 14, 2022, and Jan. 9, 2023.

Why are they facing two trials for the same alleged crime? Isn't that double jeopardy?

The rule against double jeopardy protects a person from being tried twice for the same offense. In this case, the former officers are charged with violating different state and federal laws. So it is not the same.

Take this more common scenario, which plays out frequently in Minnesota: A person is charged in a shooting with a gun they obtained unlawfully. A county prosecutor charges them with assault (a violation of Minnesota law) and the U.S. attorney charges them with illegal possession of a firearm (a federal law). All charges may stem from the same incident, but they are separate crimes.

How often are police officers tried on federal civil rights charges?

Not very often, but it does happen. In November 2019, a federal jury found St. Paul police officer Brett Palkowitsch guilty of a similar charge. In that case, the officer kicked an innocent bystander who was being mauled by a police K-9.

How does Chauvin's federal guilty plea potentially impact the other officers' trial?

Chauvin's plea doesn't change the charges for the other three, but it grants their wish to get him out of the courtroom. All three former officers had asked a judge to sever Chauvin from the trial, arguing his presence and level of culpability would prejudice a jury against them. A magistrate judge had denied that request before Chauvin pleaded guilty and took himself off the board.

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Star Tribune staff writer Katie Galioto contributed to this article. 

©2022 StarTribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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