MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A federal grand jury has indicted the four former Minneapolis police officers involved in George Floyd’s arrest and death, accusing them of willfully violating the Black man’s constitutional rights as he was restrained face-down on the pavement and gasping for air.
A three-count indictment unsealed Friday names Derek Chauvin, Thomas Lane, J. Kueng and Tou Thao. Chauvin, convicted last month on state charges of murder and manslaughter, is charged with violating Floyd’s right to be free from unreasonable seizure and unreasonable force by a police officer. Thao and Kueng are also charged with violating Floyd’s right to be free from unreasonable seizure, accused of not intervening to stop Chauvin as he knelt on Floyd’s neck. All four officers are charged for their failure to provide Floyd with medical care.
Federal probes into killings increase
Floyd’s May 25 arrest and death, which a bystander captured on cellphone video, sparked nationwide complaints about the police treatment of Black people and protests calling for an end to police brutality and racial inequities.
Chauvin was also charged in a second indictment, stemming from the use of force and neck restraint of a 14-year-old boy in 2017.
The indictment in Floyd’s death was handed down about a week after federal prosecutors brought hate crimes charges in the death of Ahmaud Arbery, as the Justice Department shifts its priorities to focus more on civil rights issues, criminal justice overhauls and policing policies.
Lane, Thao and Kueng made their initial court appearances Friday via videoconference in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis. Chauvin has not yet made his initial appearance. He is in state custody as he awaits sentencing on the state charges. The other three former officers face a state trial in August, and they remain free on bond.
Floyd, 46, died after Chauvin pinned him to the ground with a knee on his neck, even as Floyd, who was handcuffed, repeatedly said he couldn’t breathe. Kueng and Lane also helped restrain Floyd — state prosecutors have said Kueng knelt on Floyd’s back and Lane held down Floyd’s legs. State prosecutors say Thao held back bystanders and kept them from intervening during the 9 1/2-minute restraint.
Chauvin’s defense attorney refuses to comment on federal charges
Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, argued during his murder trial that Chauvin acted reasonably and Floyd died because of underlying health issues and drug use. He has filed a request for a new trial.
Nelson had no comment on the federal charges. Kueng’s attorney also had no comment. A message left for Thao’s attorney wasn’t immediately returned, and a call to Lane’s attorney disconnected when he was reached by The Associated Press.
Ben Crump and the team of attorneys for Floyd’s family said the civil rights charges reinforce “the strength and wisdom” of the Constitution. “We are encouraged by these charges and eager to see continued justice in this historic case that will impact Black citizens and all Americans for generations to come,” the attorneys said in a statement.
The Rev. Al Sharpton said the federal charges against the officers show the Justice Department “does not excuse it nor allow police to act as though as what they do is acceptable behavior in the line of duty.”
“What we couldn’t get them to do in the case of Eric Garner, Michael Brown in Ferguson, and countless others, we are finally seeing them do today,” Sharpton said.
A high legal standard
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office is prosecuting the state charges, said the federal government is responsible for protecting the civil rights of every American and “federal prosecution for the violation of George Floyd’s civil rights is entirely appropriate.”
To bring federal charges in deaths involving police, prosecutors must believe an officer acted under the “color of law,” or government authority, and willfully deprived someone of their constitutional rights. That’s a high legal standard. An accident, bad judgment or simple negligence on the officer’s part isn’t enough to support federal charges; prosecutors have to prove the officer knew what he was doing was wrong in that moment but did it anyway.
Chauvin was convicted on state charges of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Experts say he will likely face no more than 30 years in prison when he is sentenced June 25. The other officers face charges alleging they aided and abetted second-degree murder and manslaughter.
Federal charges could add decades to prison sentences
If convicted of the federal counts, the sentence for each officer would be based on complicated formulas under sentencing guidelines. In Chauvin’s case, if the federal court uses second-degree murder as his underlying offense, he could face anywhere from 14 years to slightly more than 24 years, depending on whether he takes responsibility, said Mark Osler, a former federal prosecutor and professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. The guidelines clearly state that any federal sentence would be served at the same time as a state sentence.
The indictment in Floyd’s death says Thao and Kueng were aware Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck, even after Floyd became unresponsive, and “willfully failed to intervene to stop Defendant Chauvin’s use of unreasonable force.” All four officers are charged with willfully depriving Floyd of liberty without due process.
The other indictment, against Chauvin only, alleges he deprived a 14-year-old of his right to be free of unreasonable force when he held the teen by the throat, hit him in the head with a flashlight and held his knee on the boy’s neck and upper back while he was prone, handcuffed and unresisting.
According to a police report from that 2017 encounter, Chauvin wrote that the teen resisted arrest and after the teen, whom he described as 6-foot-2 and about 240 pounds, was handcuffed, Chauvin “used body weight to pin” him to the floor. The boy was bleeding from the ear and needed two stitches.
That encounter was one of several mentioned in state court filings that prosecutors said showed Chauvin had used neck or head and upper body restraints seven times before dating back to 2014, including four times state prosecutors said he went too far and held the restraints “beyond the point when such force was needed under the circumstances.”
White House press secretary calls for legislative action on police reform
Bob Bennett, an attorney for the teenager, said the “familiar behavior” from Chauvin showed Floyd wasn’t his first victim.
At the White House, press secretary Jen Psaki said President Joe Biden didn’t have a direct reaction to the indictments. She added that the George Floyd case was “a reminder of the need to put police reform in place through our legislative process.”
Biden’s administration has made policing reform a major issue. Attorney General Merrick Garland has said he was refocusing the department around civil rights and does not believe there is equal justice under the law.
Feds plan to investigate entire Minneapolis police department
In addition to filing hate crime charges in the February 2020 death of Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was running in a Georgia neighborhood when he was chased down and shot, the Justice Department also recently announced it was opening a sweeping investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department. The investigation will examine whether there is a pattern or practice of unconstitutional or unlawful policing, and it could result in major changes.
Garland announced a similar probe into policing in Louisville, Kentucky, over the March 2020 death of Breonna Taylor, who was fatally shot by police during a raid at her home.