MINNEAPOLIS (NewsNation Now) — A special prosecutor said in court on Friday that four former Minneapolis police officers “acted together” in causing the death of George Floyd in May, while defense lawyers strongly opposed the prosecution’s bid for a joint trial.
The hearing before Hennepin County District Court Judge Peter Cahill focused on various motions in the criminal case arising from Floyd’s death that led to protests in the United States and other countries against racism and police brutality.
It was the first time all four defendants – Derek Chauvin, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao – appeared together since the May 25 death of Floyd, who was Black. Chauvin, who is white, knelt on his neck for about nine minutes.
After the hearing, Floyd’s relatives and lawyers pushed back against the assertion made by defense attorneys in court filings that Floyd, who had fentanyl in his system, died of an overdose, rather than cardiopulmonary arrest, the official cause of death.
“The only overdose that killed George Floyd was an overdose of excessive force and racism by the Minneapolis Police Department,” lawyer Ben Crump said outside the courthouse. “It is a blatant attempt to kill George Floyd a second time.”
Bystander video of Floyd’s arrest circulated around the world, sparking protests and leading to increased support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Mike Brandt, a defense attorney not connected to the case, said countering that video with Floyd’s past is good strategy.
“You are trying to push the pendulum back … from those damning videos of Chauvin with his knee on Floyd’s neck,” he said.
Chauvin, who faces the most serious charge of second-degree murder, was wearing a gray suit, dark shirt and tie, and blue surgical mask amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Neal Katyal, a special attorney for the state, said a joint trial was justified given that the evidence was similar for all four defendants and because separate trials would force relatives to repeatedly relive the trauma of Floyd’s death.
“I have seen a lot in my life, and I can barely watch the videos,” Katyal, a lawyer and the U.S. Justice Department’s former acting solicitor general brought in to help the prosecution, said about the bystander videos of Chauvin pinning Floyd to the pavement.
“These defendants acted together, they were on the scene together, they were talking to each other during the nine minutes Floyd was on the ground,” Katyal said, according to a media pool report.
All four former officers have opposed a motion by prosecutors to consolidate their cases into one trial.
Robert Paule, an attorney for Thao, said combining the cases would force him to defend against the prosecution and navigate the potentially conflicting interests of the other defendants.
“I am not just dealing with prosecutors. I am dealing with three other attorneys who are defending their clients,” Paule told the hearing. “You are bringing in a group of bobcats in a bag and letting them loose in a courtroom at all once.”
Kueng, Lane and Thao have all been charged with aiding and abetting both second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter for not taking action to help Floyd. All four defendants have filed motions to dismiss the charges.
In documents requesting dismissal, Lane’s attorney, Earl Gray, wrote about Floyd’s prior charges of armed robbery and drug possession in Texas. He called Floyd an ex-con, a violent defendant, a liar, an addict, a drug distributor, and a danger. “Mr. Floyd was, as the Officers had suspected, an addict,” Gray wrote. “He was worse than that.”
Crump rejected that approach.
“Everything you need to know is on that horrific video,” Crump said. “When police do inexcusable things, the defense is always to kill the victim all over again by dredging up their history and assassinating their character.”
Gray and Eric Nelson, Chauvin’s attorney, wrote that during a May 2019 arrest, Floyd wouldn’t listen to officers’ commands, put something in his mouth, had to be physically removed from a vehicle, then began to cry. In that case, several opioid pills were found, along with cocaine, they wrote.
Nelson compared Floyd’s behavior in both arrests, saying: “Clearly, Mr. Floyd had a modus operandi in the way he acted when approached by police officers while attempting to conceal narcotics.”
Kelly Keegan, another attorney not connected to the case, said prior incidents can’t be brought up in court just to smear people, and a judge must weigh whether the information will help the jury find facts or just leave a negative impression. Keegan said even if the officers had no knowledge of the 2019 arrest, defense attorneys could argue Floyd had a habit of swallowing drugs, acting scared, crying and struggling when approached by police.
Don Lewis, a prominent Twin Cities attorney who is not connected to this case, said it’s not unusual for defense attorneys to “feed the stereotype of the dangers of a Black man” to a jury to show that any use of force by law enforcement is justified. He said only one or two jurors need to have doubts.
Gray wrote that Floyd shares blame for his death.
“All he had to do is sit in the police car, like every other defendant who is initially arrested,” Gray wrote. “While attempting to avoid his arrest, all by himself, Mr. Floyd overdosed on Fentanyl. Given his intoxication level, breathing would have been difficult at best. Mr. Floyd’s intentional failure to obey commands, coupled with his overdosing, contributed to his own death.”
The county medical examiner classified Floyd’s death as a homicide, with his heart stopping while he was restrained by police and his neck compressed. A summary report listed fentanyl intoxication and recent methamphetamine use under “other significant conditions” but not under “cause of death.”
According to prosecutors’ notes, Hennepin County Medical Examiner Andrew Baker told prosecutors that absent other apparent causes of death, it “could be acceptable” to rule the death an overdose, based on the level of fentanyl in Floyd’s system. A separate autopsy commissioned for Floyd’s family concluded he died of asphyxiation due to neck and back compression.
Lewis and Keegan said Floyd’s cause of death will be up to a jury. They said it would be tough to eliminate all biases from a potential jury, and questions asked during jury selection will be important.
While a blame-the-victim approach might seem questionable to some, Lewis said a defense attorney’s job “is not to foster racial harmony or to further criminal justice reform. His job is solely to get his client acquitted.”
The protests prompted by Floyd’s death have been reignited in recent weeks by other incidents involving Black men and police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Rochester, New York.
More than 100 protesters gathered outside the Family Justice Center in Minneapolis, chanting “Black lives matter,” “no justice, no peace” and “indict, convict, send those killer cops to jail.”
Addressing the request by all four defendants to move their trials outside of Minneapolis due to concerns about pretrial publicity, the judge said he would like to send a questionnaire to potential jurors to find out whether they had seen pretrial media coverage and how they were affected by it.
Judge Cahill said he was planning for a trial of six weeks, including two weeks for jury selection.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.