Will blaming Chauvin get other officers off the hook for George Floyd's death?

(Left to right) Derek Chauvin, J Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane, Tou Thao
(Left to right) Derek Chauvin, J Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane, Tou Thao

Trial for other three officers set for August.

Posted: Apr 25, 2021 10:06 AM

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — With Derek Chauvin convicted of murder in George Floyd’s death, activists and the Floyd family are turning their attention to this summer's trial for the other three officers involved in his May 2020 arrest.

All three have already sought to deflect responsibility to Chauvin, by far the most senior officer on the scene.

Thomas Lane, J. Kueng and Tou Thao face trial in August on charges of aiding and abetting both second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill ordered that they be tried together, but separately from Chauvin, to reduce the number of people in the courtroom amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the three weigh their strategies, legal experts say they are sure to be watching what kind of prison time Chauvin gets at his June 16 sentencing — as much as 30 years, though likely less. Minnesota law sets the same penalties for aiding and abetting murder or manslaughter as for the act itself.

They'll also be mindful that it took jurors less than 24 hours to find Chauvin guilty on all charges. That could ratchet up pressure to consider a plea deal.

"The factual differences between Chauvin and the other three are what should drive this,” said Tom Heffelfinger, a former U.S. attorney for Minnesota.

Experts said the best Lane, Kueng and Thao can hope for is a jury of 12 people who think Chauvin was guilty but aren’t so sure about what roles the other three played. And they said the evidence against the three is weaker than the evidence against Chauvin, which provides opportunities for their attorneys.

“I would expect the theme of all three would be, 'That’s a really bad thing that Chauvin did. I didn’t like it. I'm not responsible for what happened,'" former Ramsey County prosecutor Susan Gaertner said.

Prosecutors declined to discuss their case. Attorneys for Lane and Kueng also declined, and Thao’s attorney did not return a message seeking comment. But their past filings and the evidence offer clues for likely strategies.

Lane and Kueng can argue they were rookies, in just their first week as full-fledged cops, and felt a need to defer to Chauvin — their training officer — when he pinned Floyd’s neck to the ground with his knee for nearly 9 1/2 minutes as Floyd shouted repeatedly that he couldn't breathe before going silent, then limp.

“Those two rookies have a facially different defense, and a very real factual defense, as compared to Chauvin,” Heffelfinger said.

Lane might have the best defense. Body camera video shows he asked the other officers if they should turn Floyd on his side — and Chauvin said no.

Local defense attorney Joe Friedberg said the evidence at Chauvin's trial showed that Lane was “trying to use as little force as possible” before Chauvin arrived and took charge.

Kueng can be heard reporting to Chauvin at one point that he could not find Floyd's pulse.

“They're raising questions about what was happening and whether they should be doing something different," said another local defense attorney, Brock Hunter. "It's not nearly as clear-cut as I think the evidence against Chauvin was.”

But both Chauvin and Kueng maintained their restraint, and body camera video shows Kueng holding up one of Floyd's handcuffed hands — an action that prosecution medical experts testified made it even harder for Floyd to breathe.

Thao can argue that it was crowd control, keeping an agitated group of about 15 onlookers at a safe distance, and that he largely had his back to the other officers and Floyd.

“His defense could be, ‘I was just present and it takes more than presence to make a crime,'" Heffelfinger said.

But one of the onlookers Thao specifically ordered to stand back was Genevieve Hansen, a Minneapolis firefighter who can be heard on video pleading repeatedly for officers to check Floyd's pulse. Hansen cried on the witness stand at Chauvin's trial as she described her frustration at being prevented from coming to Floyd's aid.

The quick conviction for Chauvin spurred speculation about plea deals. Heffelfinger said prosecutors may be open to that because they're aware of the potential weaknesses in the cases against the three.

“Prosecutors know this stuff, so this is a good time for all parties to consider settlement over the next two or three months," he said.

Gaertner said prosecutors will feel pressure not to strike a plea deal that could be seen by activists as letting the officers off lightly. But she said she hopes they do consider deals that would avert a trial, particularly due to the stress and expense of the just-completed trial that transformed parts of Minneapolis into a militarized zone.

“Clearly these three defendants are significantly less culpable than Chauvin," she said. "And that should be taken into account. Another trial is going to be very disruptive, costly and I’m not sure that that’s in the best interests of the public.”

But Friedberg said he doesn't expect any deals.

“None of them will ever plead guilty,” Friedberg predicted. "They have three really good lawyers who are extremely aggressive lawyers. There’s no question in my mind they're going to go to trial and they're going to claim that they were completely unaware of the depths of what Derek Chauvin was doing.”

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 592750

Reported Deaths: 7376
CountyCasesDeaths
Hennepin1226641731
Ramsey51369875
Dakota45906452
Anoka41713438
Washington26899283
Stearns22238222
St. Louis17758304
Scott17275124
Wright16034140
Olmsted1324298
Sherburne1170887
Carver1049145
Clay815792
Rice8056107
Blue Earth750441
Crow Wing665089
Kandiyohi655783
Chisago599751
Otter Tail574978
Benton570297
Goodhue478072
Douglas467875
Mower465732
Winona454550
Itasca437556
McLeod423659
Isanti421364
Morrison419260
Nobles407748
Beltrami395559
Steele388315
Polk384168
Becker380253
Lyon360651
Carlton345254
Freeborn341729
Pine328622
Nicollet326143
Brown305440
Mille Lacs304553
Le Sueur291723
Todd282132
Cass272828
Meeker256340
Waseca236222
Martin230632
Roseau209019
Wabasha20533
Hubbard189341
Dodge18493
Renville180243
Redwood174337
Houston171816
Cottonwood164923
Fillmore156310
Wadena155922
Pennington153619
Faribault152319
Chippewa152238
Kanabec144626
Sibley143510
Aitkin134936
Watonwan13279
Rock128219
Jackson121812
Pipestone115426
Yellow Medicine114120
Pope11026
Murray10639
Swift105218
Stevens91311
Marshall88117
Clearwater86816
Koochiching83315
Wilkin81512
Lake81119
Lac qui Parle75322
Big Stone6004
Lincoln5813
Grant5768
Mahnomen5499
Norman5399
Unassigned50093
Kittson48622
Red Lake3967
Traverse3705
Lake of the Woods3253
Cook1640

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 367061

Reported Deaths: 5938
CountyCasesDeaths
Polk57642625
Linn20869335
Scott20044241
Black Hawk15813308
Woodbury15132228
Johnson1448383
Dubuque13374208
Dallas1118298
Pottawattamie11122168
Story1061748
Warren577988
Clinton555693
Cerro Gordo540389
Sioux514474
Webster512293
Marshall483075
Muscatine481199
Des Moines457166
Wapello4301122
Buena Vista424840
Jasper419272
Plymouth401280
Lee375855
Marion362575
Jones298957
Henry291837
Carroll285952
Bremer284560
Crawford266140
Boone264834
Benton256655
Washington253750
Dickinson248443
Mahaska230351
Jackson222142
Clay215625
Kossuth215364
Tama209771
Delaware209641
Winneshiek196934
Page192722
Buchanan191332
Cedar190023
Hardin185643
Fayette185141
Wright184637
Hamilton179949
Harrison179673
Clayton169556
Butler164934
Madison162319
Mills162222
Floyd160942
Cherokee158938
Lyon158041
Poweshiek154734
Allamakee151451
Iowa148824
Hancock148234
Winnebago142431
Calhoun138513
Cass138554
Grundy136333
Emmet134340
Jefferson132435
Shelby131037
Sac130319
Union128333
Louisa128149
Appanoose127949
Mitchell126342
Chickasaw124116
Guthrie121530
Franklin120521
Humboldt119126
Palo Alto112823
Howard104622
Montgomery103338
Clarke100124
Unassigned9740
Keokuk95931
Monroe95129
Ida90335
Adair86532
Pocahontas85522
Davis83024
Monona82730
Osceola78716
Greene77710
Lucas77223
Worth7478
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