May 08, 2021
Fired officers could face new trials for violating his civil rights; Chauvin is also charged in a 2017 case.
Derek Chauvin, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao | Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office VIA AP
By Andy Mannix | Star Tribune
A federal grand jury has indicted four ex-Minneapolis police officers on charges of abusing their positions of authority to detain George Floyd, leading to his death last May.
The new charges, unsealed Friday morning, allege Derek Chauvin, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao used the “color of the law” to deprive Floyd of his constitutional rights to be “free from the use of unreasonable force” when Chauvin pinned Floyd down with a knee on his neck for more than nine minutes, and the other three did nothing to stop him. “This offense resulted in bodily injury to, and the death of George Floyd,” the charges state.
Kueng, Lane and Thao appeared at a virtual hearing in U.S. District Court on Friday morning on the charges. They are not in custody.
Chauvin is being held in Oak Park Heights prison awaiting sentencing on the state’s murder and manslaughter convictions related to the incident.
Chauvin also faces a separate two-count indictment alleging he willfully deprived a 14-year-old Minneapolis boy of his civil rights during a 2017 arrest. Chauvin pinned the teenager down and struck him on the head with his flashlight, then grabbed him by the throat and hit him again, according to court documents.
Prosecutors tried to introduce the incident in Chauvin’s murder trial as evidence of his policing style; a judge deemed it inadmissible.
The Justice Department charges come 11 months after the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Minnesota announced it was opening a federal investigation, and just weeks after a Hennepin County jury found Chauvin guilty in a livestreamed trial viewed worldwide.
The other three former officers are scheduled for trial in August in state court for aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter.
The federal charges come in addition to the state’s cases, meaning all four former officers could face new trials in federal court.
The Justice Department investigation has run parallel to the state’s cases. Leading up to Chauvin’s murder trial, federal prosecutors believed they had enough evidence to charge him with civil rights violations, but they feared publicity around new indictments would disrupt the state’s trial. If Chauvin were found not guilty on all counts or the case ended in a mistrial, the Justice Department planned to arrest him at the courthouse on the federal charges, according to sources who were not authorized to speak publicly. The plan would turn out not to be necessary when Chauvin was found guilty on all charges.
The new charges also run in addition to the Justice Department’s civil investigation into whether Minneapolis police engage in a pattern and practice of unlawful behavior. Justice officials announced this investigation the day after Chauvin’s guilty verdict.
Eric Nelson, Chauvin’s attorney in state court, declined to comment. Messages seeking comment were left for the attorneys representing the other three former officers in state court.
“The federal government has a responsibility to protect the civil rights of every American and to pursue justice to the fullest extent of federal law,” said Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who is serving as special prosecutor on the state’s cases.
“Federal prosecution for the violation of George Floyd’s civil rights is entirely appropriate, particularly now that Derek Chauvin has been convicted of murder under Minnesota law for the death of George Floyd. The State is planning to present our case against the other three defendants to another jury in Hennepin County later this summer,” Ellison said.
The Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, which is providing legal representation for the four officers in their state cases, said it will be doing the same in federal court with the same attorneys. The association otherwise declined to comment on the indictments.
Civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, whose legal team negotiated a $27 million legal settlement from the city of Minneapolis for Floyd’s survivors, said in a statement, “Today’s federal indictment for criminal civil rights violations associated with the murder of George Floyd reinforces the strength and wisdom of the United States Constitution. The Constitution claims to be committed to life, liberty, and justice, and we are seeing this realized in the justice George Floyd continues to receive. … 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 Rev. Al Sharpton, a longtime civil rights figure who eulogized Floyd at his funeral last year and has been a visible supporter of the family, said in a statement that the news “shows we have a Justice Department that deals with police criminality and does not excuse it nor allow police to act as though what they do is acceptable behavior in the line of duty.”
Referencing earlier instances of Blacks around the country dying in recent years after encounters with police, Sharpton said, “What we couldn’t get [federal authorities] to do in the case of Eric Garner, Michael Brown in Ferguson, and countless others, we are finally seeing them do today. … This is a significant development for those of us who have been engaged in the struggle and police reform movement.”
Derrick Johnson, national president of the NAACP, called the indictments a “step in the right direction” but said the case highlights the need for police reforms, including implementing a national registry of police misconduct data.
“While Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd over 9 minutes and 29 seconds, no other police officer on the scene acted to save his life,” Johnson said. “The horrifying actions and inactions of all four police officers resulted in the preventable death of a loving father, son and brother. No police officer is above the law, nor should they ever be shielded from accountability. We need urgent reforms now.”
Over the past decade, federal prosecutors have brought civil rights charges against officers in the U.S. 41 times per year on average, according to a report from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
The most recent federal civil rights trial against a Minnesota officer took place in 2019, for St. Paul officer Brett Palkowitsch. Palkowitsch kicked an unarmed 52-year-old Black man who was handcuffed and being attacked by a police K-9, leaving him with seven broken ribs and two collapsed lungs. The jury found the officer guilty, by a standard of using “more force than a reasonable officer would use under the circumstances.”
The stand-alone indictment of Chauvin relates to a violent arrest captured on body-camera footage, which prosecutors for the state’s case described in court documents, citing it as evidence of Chauvin’s brand of violent policing when dealing with suspects who refuse to bend to his will.
On Sept. 4, 2017, Chauvin and another officer responded to a domestic assault, in which a mother said her juvenile son and daughter assaulted her. The officers arrived to find the 14-year-old son lying on the floor in the back of the house, on his phone, and ordered him to get up because he was under arrest. When the boy refused to comply, Chauvin grabbed him and wordlessly struck the teen in the head with his flashlight multiple times.
The video shows Chauvin using a neck restraint, choking the boy unconscious, then placing him in a prone position with a knee in his back for about 17 minutes until paramedics arrived, according to court documents.
In a scene reminiscent of the Floyd arrest, Chauvin held the position even after the child told him that he was in pain and couldn’t breathe, and after the mother tried to intervene, prosecutors said. At one point, the boy started bleeding from his ear — from getting hit with the flashlight, he later told paramedics — and he asked to be flipped on his back. He then began crying and again asked to be flipped over, prompting Chauvin to ask if the boy would be “flopping around at all.”
“No,” the boy responded.
“Better not,” Chauvin said.
He kept his knee on the child’s back. According to prosecutors, Chauvin’s report from the incident suggested that the boy “then displayed active resistance to efforts to take him into custody” by “flailing his arms around.” He went on to write that the boy, whom he described as “approximately 6’2″ and at least 240 pounds,” would “escalate his efforts to not be arrested,” and because of the boy’s large size, Chauvin “deliver[ed] a few strikes to [the juvenile male] to impact his shoulders and hopefully allow control to be obtained.”
Chauvin’s sentencing is scheduled for June 25. The state’s trial for the other three officers is set to begin Aug. 23.
This story is part of a collaboration with “Frontline,” the PBS series, through its Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Staff writers Paul Walsh and Libor Jany contributed to this report.