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Prosecution rests in the trial of 3 ex-officers accused in George Floyd's death

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The defense is expected to start presenting witnesses today in the trial of three former police officers accused of violating George Floyd's civil rights. All three were at the scene when Floyd died in May 2020. This was after Derek Chauvin used his knee to press Floyd's neck to the ground for more than nine minutes. One of the officers, J. Alexander Kueng, knelt on Floyd's back; Thomas Lane held down his legs; Tou Thao held back onlookers. Over the last three weeks, prosecutors have called witnesses, doctors and police experts. Yesterday, they rested their case.

Paul Butler is with us now. He's a former federal prosecutor and law professor at Georgetown University. Thanks for being back on the show, Paul.

PAUL BUTLER: Hey, Rachel, it's great to be here.

MARTIN: When it comes to civil rights cases as this is, how difficult are they to prove?

BUTLER: These are tough cases for the government. In this case, all three officers are charged with depriving Mr. Floyd of his right to be free of an unreasonable search and seizure. And two of the officers are also charged with failing to intervene to stop Mr. Chauvin's use of unreasonable force. There has to be proof of willfulness, of criminal intent, which is difficult in these cases when often jurors are sympathetic. They think even if the officers made a mistake, they were only trying to do their job.

MARTIN: Although, I mean, they will - the prosecution has no doubt tried to prove that by not acting to give Floyd adequate medical assistance, that that is material to this case.

BUTLER: That's right. In this case, though, two of the officers were rookies. It was Mr. Kueng's third shift as a police officer, and Chauvin was his training officer. It was Mr. Lane's fourth day on the job. And these officers say they did try to help. Mr. Kueng told Chauvin he couldn't detect a pulse of Mr. Floyd, and Mr. Lane asked whether they should roll Mr. Floyd on his side. And in both cases, they were rebuffed by Chauvin. Mr. Thao had no physical contact with Mr. Floyd. Now, Rachel, none of these are technically defenses, but they may make a difference to the jury.

MARTIN: Derek Chauvin changed his plea to guilty on similar civil rights charges back in December. Could that plea have any bearing on this current civil rights case?

BUTLER: No, I don't think that the judge will allow the jury to consider that especially and not to impute guilt. Now, Mr. Chauvin is an absent star of this trial because one of the main defenses is to blame Derek Chauvin. He was a senior officer on the scene. He'd been a police officer for many years, and he was one of the defendant's training officers. So they say when he arrived at the scene, he took command, and they basically followed his orders.

MARTIN: You nodded to the fact that, you know, some of these officers just hadn't been on the job that long, and the defense has blamed the Minneapolis Police Department for what it calls poor training. Do you think that's a reliable defense at this point?

BUTLER: It depends on the facts, so we are going to hear the formal defense starting today of what these officers say is that they were told inconsistent things about the use of force when they were in the academy. They say, for example, that they were shown a video of an officer with his knee on a suspect's neck, and nobody said that that - that there was a duty to intervene. They say this happened actually during their training.

MARTIN: The last prosecution witness was the police chief at the University of Virginia, Tim Longo. He testified that the former officer's conduct was, quote, "inconsistent with generally accepted policing practices." And he said officers have a duty to take what he called affirmative steps to stop excessive force. How often does this happen, that one officer steps up and reports another officer for wrongdoing?

BUTLER: You know, it's rare, and that's why I think this case is, in many ways, more important in terms of transforming police culture than the state murder trial of Derek Chauvin. Because, Rachel, what these defendants allegedly did and failed to do reflects the police workplace culture of enabling criminal acts committed by police officers. And that's a far more common and insidious form of police misconduct than Chauvin's extreme act of murdering a suspect. There was a striking moment at Chauvin's trial when a Minneapolis EMT officer testified that she was off duty and happened to cross the scene and saw Mr. Floyd crying out in agony. She begged Officer Thao to let her help. He told her, if you really are a Minneapolis firefighter, you would know better than to get involved. That's the dangerous mindset that must be rooted out to prevent more tragedies like the death of George Floyd.

MARTIN: Paul Butler with Georgetown University, thank you.

BUTLER: Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.