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George Floyd’s Civil Rights Are Focus in Opening Arguments of Federal Trial

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The most important piece of evidence used to convict Derek Chauvin of murder last year was a bystander video that showed the former Minneapolis police officer suffocating George Floyd with his knee.

But defense lawyers for three of Mr. Chauvin’s fellow officers, who are accused of violating Mr. Floyd’s civil rights, began their case on Monday by telling a federal jury that there is far more to the story than the video — an argument that Mr. Chauvin’s lawyer also used at trial.

There was Mr. Floyd’s drug use, they said. His erratic actions when officers tried to arrest him. The accusation of a crime — passing a fake $20 bill to buy cigarettes. They added that the area around Cup Foods, where a convenience store clerk had called the police because of Mr. Floyd, was a high-crime location where street gangs were active, raising the officers’ level of fear.

From the very start, the defense lawyers also acknowledged that Mr. Floyd’s death was devastating, before making their arguments that their clients were not responsible.

“The death of George Floyd really is a tragedy,” said Robert Paule, the lawyer for one of the defendants, Tou Thao, a veteran officer who was Mr. Chauvin’s partner. “However, a tragedy is not a crime.”

A crime, though, is exactly what the three officers committed, a federal prosecutor told the jury in her opening argument. Speaking directly, Samantha Trepel, the prosecutor, walked the jury through the law that requires officers to intervene when they see a fellow officer using excessive force. She explained that officers were required under the Constitution to protect people in their custody, and to intervene if they see another officer abusing a suspect.

“Failing to do so is a crime,” said Ms. Trepel, who repeatedly portrayed the defendants as callous in failing to stop the murder of Mr. Floyd. “They watched as Mr. Floyd suffered a slow and agonizing death,” she said, and “didn’t lift a finger” to help him.

The three former officers are on trial on charges of willfully violating Mr. Floyd’s civil rights in a case that centers on a crucial issue in American policing: the duty of police officers to intervene against fellow officers when they witness misconduct. The law requires them to do so, and police departments train officers on the duty to intervene, but prosecutions are exceedingly rare. That partly reflects the high standard of proving willfulness, which implies some element of intent — or at least awareness that an officer is doing something wrong, but does it anyway.

The trial is taking place amid a much less intense atmosphere than the one which surrounded Mr. Chauvin’s state trial in a heavily fortified courthouse in downtown Minneapolis. It drew crowds of demonstrators and was guarded by soldiers with the National Guard.

Some of Mr. Floyd’s family members and friends were in the courtroom on Monday, including his brother, Philonise Floyd; his nephew Brandon Williams; and Courteney Ross, who was Mr. Floyd’s girlfriend.

In a brief interview, Ms. Ross said that this trial was just as important for achieving justice for Mr. Floyd as Mr. Chauvin’s trial was. “I know when someone is crying out for help the right thing to do is help them,” she said.

In this trial, the central issue is not Mr. Chauvin’s brutality, but an aspect of police culture that is far more common: the deference that most officers give to their superiors — Mr. Chauvin was the highest-ranking officer on the scene — and the reluctance of many to speak up when they witness misconduct.

Ms. Trepel also offered a preview of how the prosecution planned to present its case in the coming weeks. Numerous police officers will take the stand, she said, and testify about the training that officers receive on the duty to intervene as well as the dangers of holding a handcuffed suspect facedown, as they did with Mr. Floyd. She said bystander witnesses, some of whom testified at Mr. Chauvin’s trial, will testify about the “slow-motion killing they were watching.”

Lawyers for the three former officers appeared to be outlining a defense built on several pillars: that Mr. Floyd’s own actions in initially resisting arrest justified the aggressive police response; that two of the officers, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng, were rookies, and that Mr. Chauvin was the training officer for one of them; and that the third officer, Mr. Thao, was busy keeping the group of bystanders at bay while acting, in the words of Mr. Paule, as a “human traffic cone.”

One of the lawyers, Thomas Plunkett, who represents Mr. Kueng, hinted that he would also try to focus blame on the Minneapolis Police Department itself, saying its training was insufficient. He said the training at the Police Academy on duty to intervene was “little more than a word on a PowerPoint.”

Earl Gray, the lawyer for Mr. Lane, called attention to Mr. Floyd’s size — saying he was a big man who was “all muscle” and could have had “superhuman strength.” The language had echoes of past defense strategies when officers are on trial for killing Black men that have come under criticism as racially biased.

During opening statements, Mr. Gray was the only one who said his client, Mr. Lane, planned to take the stand in his own defense.

Ms. Trepel, for her part, briefly walked the jury through the actions of the three officers that day, and argued that each had committed crimes by not intervening to prevent the violation of Mr. Floyd’s constitutional rights against unreasonable seizure and to not be denied liberty without due process.

Displaying a still image from a city surveillance camera that showed the four officers with Mr. Floyd as they struggled to arrest him on Memorial Day in 2020, she argued that Mr. Thao was in position to see what Mr. Chauvin was doing, and that he was informed by bystanders that Mr. Floyd was in great distress.

As for the two other officers, she said that being rookies was no defense, and suggested that because they were new, the training they had received on the use of force and the duty to intervene should have been fresh in their minds — even though it “can be awkward and uncomfortable” to speak out against a fellow officer.

Ms. Trepel concluded her opening statement by telling the jury she was confident that, after all the evidence had been presented, they would find the defendants guilty for “choosing to do nothing and watching a man die.”

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