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Civil rights trial begins for 3 ex-Minneapolis cops charged in George Floyd's death

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Prosecutors and defense attorneys made their opening statements this morning in the trial of three former Minneapolis police officers who are charged with violating George Floyd's civil rights. Floyd died in May of 2020 in Minneapolis after Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for more than nine minutes. Chauvin was convicted of murder last year. Floyd's killing sparked calls for increased police accountability across the country.

Minnesota Public Radio's Jon Collins joins us from the federal courthouse in St. Paul, Minn. Jon, what are these former officers charged with?

JON COLLINS, BYLINE: What these federal charges essentially mean is that these defendants abused their authority as police officers. That's what's alleged, that they violated George Floyd's right to be free of unlawful search and seizure. And prosecutors say police officers have a responsibility to intervene and that these officers failing to do so led to Floyd's death. All three former officers are charged with failing to give Floyd medical care, and then two are also charged with failing to intervene with officer Derek Chauvin's use of force. And Derek Chauvin is the officer that kneeled on Floyd's neck for 9 and a half minutes and who has already been convicted of murder in state court and just last month pled guilty to his own set of federal charges.

SHAPIRO: Tell us more about these defendants and the role that they may have played in Floyd's death that day.

COLLINS: So Tou Thao had been an officer for more than eight years. He's Hmong American and was brought into the department through a program that aimed to diversify the department's ranks. His role at the scene was to ward off bystanders as Chauvin kneeled on Floyd. J. Alexander Kueng was kneeling on Floyd's back and legs, and he checked Floyd for a pulse multiple times. Both Kueng and the other defendant, Thomas Lane, were rookies. And Lane is white and Kueng is African American, and they were the first officers on the scene. And then Thomas Lane helped restrain Floyd and suggests twice that the officers flip Floyd over. And he performed CPR in the ambulance, but that happens about five minutes after Floyd stopped breathing. Lane doesn't take any other action, and Floyd was officially declared dead an hour later.

SHAPIRO: What did you hear in today's opening statements?

COLLINS: Prosecutor Samantha Trepel made the opening statement for prosecutors. She started out by saying, quote, "in your custody is in your care," telling jurors that police officers are trained and expected to take care of vulnerable people. As Floyd was being restrained, a number of bystanders had gathered around him, and the prosecutor says the bystanders first asked, then pleaded, then demanded that Chauvin let Floyd up and that the bystanders were Floyd's voice when he could no longer talk but that all the officers ignored the fact it was obvious - that Floyd was being killed in front of them. And even though they were trained in safer restraints and in CPR, they did nothing to help Floyd.

SHAPIRO: What did the defense attorneys say?

COLLINS: Defense attorneys walked through the events before Floyd died, that the officers were called due to a counterfeit $20 bill and that they say George Floyd didn't comply with demands and struggled physically with officers when they tried to force him into the back of a squad. And defense attorney Robert Paule started his comments by saying Floyd's death is a tragedy, but that tragedy is not a crime, and Paule argued that Facebook video that went viral of Floyd's killing doesn't show what happened leading up to it, which he says helps you understand the officer's actions. Defense attorneys are also focusing on the relative inexperience of some of the defendants here and laying some of the blame on Derek Chauvin, who, after all, has already been convicted.

SHAPIRO: That is Minnesota Public Radio's Jon Collins. Thanks a lot.

COLLINS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.