The judge handling the federal trial for three former Minneapolis police officers charged with violating George Floyd's civil rights urged attorneys Tuesday to “move the case along” to reduce chances that the proceeding will be disrupted by COVID-19.
Jury selection starts Jan. 20 for Tou Thao, J. Kueng and Thomas Lane on charges that they deprived Floyd of his rights while acting under government authority.
They're charged with depriving Floyd of the right to be free from indifference to his medical needs. Thao and Kueng are also charged with willfully depriving Floyd, who was Black, of his right to be free from unreasonable force by failing to stop fellow Officer Derek Chauvin from pressing his knee into Floyd's neck. Lane, who does not face that charge, twice asked his fellow officers whether they should roll Floyd onto his side.
Chauvin, who is white, was convicted in April of state murder and manslaughter charges. Last month, he pleaded guilty to a federal count of violating Floyd’s civil rights.
The May 2020 killing was captured on bystander video and galvanized protests against police brutality around the U.S. and beyond.
U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson used Tuesday's pretrial hearing to rule on several motions, including granting defense requests that a girl who was 9 when she witnessed Floyd's death be blocked from testifying and that an off-duty firefighter who also witnessed the death be barred from testifying in uniform.
Magnuson also initially granted a motion to limit medical testimony, commenting that “we have way too many witnesses in this case.” Prosecutor LeeAnn Bell urged the judge to reconsider, saying she would provide the court with a synopsis of what each medical expert would testify about.
Magnuson said he was concerned that attorneys, defendants or jurors could fall ill with COVID-19, as the highly contagious omicron variant has become widespread. The judge also expressed concern that the case “is getting out of proportion.”
“What I’m really encouraging is good hard work by good lawyers to see if you can’t bring it into a more definitive perspective," Magnuson said. “Move the case along and get it tried in a much shorter time. The longer we are in this courtroom, the more potentiality we have with exposure to COVID.”
According to evidence at Chauvin's murder trial, Kueng and Lane helped restrain the 46-year-old Floyd as he was on the ground. Kueng knelt on Floyd’s back and Lane held down Floyd’s legs. Thao kept bystanders from intervening.
Magunson denied a request from Kueng's attorney, Tom Plunkett, to bar paramedics from testifying about whether Floyd was dead when they arrived. Prosecutors had noted that the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officers' actions resulted in Floyd's death. In court filings, prosecutors said they anticipate presenting evidence that shows the officers were trained that “when a person is no longer breathing and does not have a pulse, one must act quickly to provide potentially lifesaving aid.”
Maguson also said the court, not attorneys, would handle juror questioning. He plans to bring in 36 jurors at a time for questioning, and will repeat that process until a total of 40 jurors have been passed for cause. Then attorneys will be able to use their strikes. Magnuson said he will seat 18 jurors, including six alternates.
Thao’s attorney, Bob Paule, asked the court to bar prosecutors from asking witnesses about how they felt while watching Floyd’s arrest or videos of it. Maguson warned attorneys to careful while questioning witnesses, saying emotional responses can be harmful and prejudicial.
Bell told Magnuson that there were no plea deals offered to the officers. She said there were some initial discussions with attorneys, but in each instance, defendants decided not to continue those discussions.
The three former officers also face state charges of aiding and abetting both murder and manslaughter. On Tuesday, the judge overseeing that case denied a defense request to reconsider his order to allow the trial to be livestreamed. That trial is scheduled to begin March 7, but both sides have asked that it be postponed.
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