So much for a united front. Two of the four Minneapolis police officers charged in the homicide of George Floyd won’t coordinate a defense, but instead plan to point the fingers at Derek Chauvin and his partner Tuo Thao. In a bail hearing yesterday, one attorney pleaded that his client had little recourse in dealing with Chauvin as the senior officer on scene:
On Thursday, Hennepin County District Judge Paul Scoggin set bail for each of the other three at $1 million without conditions, or $750,000 with conditions. But their initial appearance, normally routine, turned contentious.
“What is my client supposed to do but follow what the [senior] officer says?” Lane’s attorney, Earl Gray, argued in court. “The strength of this case, your honor, in my opinion is extremely weak.” …
“What was [Lane] supposed to do … go up to Mr. Chauvin and grab him and throw him off?” said Gray, arguing that there was no evidence to charge his client.
Kueng’s attorney, Thomas Plunkett, also attempted to distance his client from Chauvin’s actions.
“At all times Mr. Kueng and Mr. Lane turned their attention to that 19-year veteran,” Plunkett said. “[Kueng] was trying — they were trying to communicate that this situation needs to change direction.”
To answer Gray’s question: yes, that is precisely what they should have done. Once they realized that Floyd was in distress — and they are now both apparently admitting they knew it — they were supposed to enforce the law and prevent a homicide from taking place. Isn’t that the role of police in the first place? The defense of “I was just following orders” has a long and very unsuccessful history in jurisprudence, American and otherwise. To fail to intervene knowing that Chauvin was violating Floyd’s rights and putting him in physical danger would seem to be a pretty good argument for aiding and abetting in the death, at least through an act of omission.
Plus, there’s at least some hint of an act of commission here too. The admission that they knew Chauvin was harming Floyd is rather curious, but so is their attempt to distance themselves from it. The bystander video shows Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for several minutes, but a reverse angle lasting about a minute shows both Kueng and Lane kneeling on Floyd’s back for at least a minute, too. Perhaps the body cams will show that period of time as very limited and the two arguing with Chauvin afterward, but at least for a portion of the time when Floyd was subdued, they participated in the compression that killed Floyd.
One has to suspect that the body cam video might show something like the above, though, given the charges. Why did they only get charged with aiding and abetting rather than murder along with Chauvin? Their participation in the compression might have been so limited as to have been reasonable otherwise, while Chauvin’s clearly was not just unreasonable but recklessly disregarding the potential impact to Floyd’s life. Had the other two stayed on Floyd’s back the whole time, they would have gotten the full murder charge.
One other interesting point got raised by the defense yesterday. Both of these officers were rookies; Kueng was on his third full-time shift with the Minneapolis PD, and Lane (although 37) was on his fourth day as a full-time officer. It’s not clear what experience they had before coming to the Minneapolis PD as full-time officers, but apparently the defense will heavily stress their lack of experience as a mitigating factor. There’s no legal theory that would relieve them of responsibility for being rookies, but their attorneys will likely play that up for the jury in order to play on their sympathies — and hope that the jury will be in the mood to settle on Chauvin and Thao for their ire. Good luck with that, especially if the defense can’t get a change of venue from Hennepin County.