With Derek Chauvin’s guilty verdict secured, the state of Minnesota turns its attention to the three other former police officers facing charges in George Floyd’s murder.
J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao were charged last summer with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter. They are set to stand trial together in August.
Lane and Kueng helped Chauvin pin Floyd facedown on the street during an arrest attempt outside a convenience store in Minneapolis in May 2020. Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly 10 minutes while Floyd repeatedly stated he couldn’t breathe and eventually ceased speaking, moving and breathing.
Thao, Chauvin’s partner at the time, stood between the officers and a group of bystanders filming the violent arrest. As Floyd gasped for air, Thao callously told the onlookers that Floyd’s arrest was an example of “why you don’t do drugs.”
After a weekslong, closely watched trial, Chauvin was convicted Tuesday of second- and third-degree murder as well as second-degree manslaughter. Here’s how those guilty verdicts could impact the other former officers’ trial, according to legal experts.
Not A ‘Slam Dunk’
No trial is ever a “slam dunk,” and this one isn’t poised to be an exception, despite prosecutors succeeding in the Chauvin case, said Howard University School of Law Professor Adam Kurland.
Chauvin’s conviction isn’t something that can be introduced as evidence in the other officers’ trial, meaning the state will have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt to a new jury that Chauvin murdered Floyd.
Though prosecutors can present the same videos and witnesses they tapped for Chauvin’s trial, several key factors will be different, including the defense attorneys and the jurors. (Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill, who presided over Chauvin’s trial, will do the same in the other former officers’ trial.)
“The defendants in this case ... can only be found guilty if in their trial it’s proved that they aided and abetted Chauvin’s criminal conduct, which is going to have to be reproved,” said Kurland, a former federal prosecutor for the state of California. “And that is where it gets a little bit dicey.”
“That would have been the same had Chauvin been acquitted,” he added.
John Farmer Jr., director of Rutger University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics, said going to trial is a “roll of the dice.”
“There are so many variables ― the quality of the jury, the quality of the witnesses,” said Farmer, the former attorney general for New Jersey. “You can’t take for granted that you’re going to get the same result.”
It’s possible the jury will find that culpability varies by defendant, potentially resulting in a mixed bag of verdicts.
Both Kueng and Lane were in their first week on the job as full officers when Chauvin murdered Floyd. Kueng was 26 years old at the time and Lane was 37.
Thao, who was 34 at the time of Floyd’s arrest, had been working for the Minneapolis Police Department for nine years. He had six misconduct complaints filed against him during his career with the department, reported The New York Times.
Attorneys for Kueng, Lane and Thao did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment.
Possible Plea Bargains
Both Kurland and Farmer said they expected the Chauvin conviction to potentially trigger at least one or more guilty pleas from the other officers ahead of their trial.
“Only a sliver of a fraction of criminal cases in federal court go to trial,” Kurland said. “Statistically, I think it’s unlikely that all three of the defendants are going to go to trial, which means at least one is going to be resolved by plea.”
Farmer said there are “strong incentives on both sides” to enter plea negotiations. He said he expects the defense attorneys to “think really long and hard about whether they want to go to trial,” adding, however, it’s unclear what kind of potential plea deals would even be on the table.
Ultimately, it’s too early to tell, according to both Kurland and Farmer.
There are so many variables ― the quality of the jury, the quality of the witnesses. You can’t take for granted that you’re going to get the same result. John Farmer Jr., law professor at Rutgers University
Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, a sociology professor at Brown University and a criminal justice expert, said she thought the officers were more likely to stand trial, given what unfolded after the 2014 murder of Laquan McDonald.
McDonald, a Black teenager, was fatally shot by Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke, who is white, 16 times as he was walking away from the officer.
Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder in 2018. But three officers who were tried for allegedly conspiring and lying to protect Van Dyke were acquitted in a subsequent trial. Those officers, who are also white, were accused of writing in official reports that McDonald had tried to stab several officers. Video recorded by the officers’ body cameras contradicted that account.
“To me, it feels like the most analogous case,” Gonzalez Van Cleve said. “It was upsetting because it was so demonstrative of how these cover-ups happen and the fact that they’re systemic.”
Though the so-called “blue wall of silence” was cracked in Chauvin’s trial when current and former police officers testified against his actions, Gonzalez Van Cleve isn’t convinced those witnesses will do the same in the upcoming trial.
“As soon as they got their one scapegoat, they protected the remaining,” she said of the McDonald murder.
Wave Of Defense Motions
Just as Eric Nelson did in Chauvin’s trial, it’s likely the defense attorneys for the three former officers will file motions for a change of venue and jury sequestration given the high-profile nature of the proceedings.
“They’d be hard-pressed to find another jurisdiction where there hasn’t been saturation coverage” of the Chauvin trial, Farmer said. “It would certainly be in their interest to say that all of this is too soon and the judge may be sympathetic of that.”
Still, change in venue motions are often made but rarely granted, Kurland said.
Another potential move the officers might consider would be to elect a bench trial, in which the trial takes place only in front of a judge and there is no jury. The three officers accused of covering up Van Dyke’s conduct in the McDonald murder opted for a bench trial and were acquitted.
Three Baltimore police officers were acquitted in the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Black man who died after sustaining injuries while being transported in a police van, after electing separate bench trials.
“If I were the prosecutors, I would not oppose a bench trial,” Kurland said. “The question is, would the defendant want it?”
To Gonzalez Van Cleve, the defense’s potential preference for a bench trial could come down to a judge’s “prosecutorial mindset” and how that might bode well for the former police officers being tried.
“There is a shared culture between prosecutors and their partners in law enforcement,” she said. “And there are still many judges who ... believe the ‘bad apple’ narrative that’s been part of the PR script that police departments across the nation continue to rely upon.”
The biggest question that remains to be seen ahead of the trial is whether public sentiment regarding police killings has truly changed and whether it’s enough to hold the officers accountable in this case, Gonzalez Van Cleve said.
“Without the mass protests of the summer, there would not have been a trial,” she said. “Because of the political pressure, the people demanding justice in this particular way, it’s possible maybe this will be the exception to the rule.”