Federal trial in George Floyd's death: Prosecutors argue 'in custody is in your care'

Former Minneapolis police officers J. Alexander Kueng (left), Thomas Lane (center), and Tou Thao (right) have been charged in connection to George Floyd's death. (Hennepin County Jail)

Opening statements in the federal trial of three former Minneapolis police officers got underway Monday morning, with one of the prosecutors painting the entire case as hinging on a concept that "in custody is in your care."

J. Alexander Kueng, Tou Thao, and Thomas Lane are on trial in St. Paul’s federal courthouse on charges they violated George Floyd’s constitutional rights when he was murdered by fellow former officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020.

Chauvin was found guilty of murder in a state trial last year and in December pleaded guilty to similar federal charges that his three former co-workers now stand trial for.

All three former officers are accused of violating Floyd’s civil rights when they failed to provide medical help when he lost consciousness and then lost a pulse.

Thou and Kueng are also accused of failing to intervene in Chauvin’s use of force. Lane is not facing this charge, as he twice asked about rolling Floyd on his side to help him breathe.

One of the prosecutors, Samantha Trepel, gave the government’s opening statement. She said that "in custody is in your care" is a "fundamental element of policing."

She told the jury of 12 plus six alternates that the three accused men "watched as Mr. Floyd suffered a slow and agonizing death." Trepel said Mr. Floyd said he couldn’t breathe 25 times "as he tried to alert officers he was dying."

"We will ask that you hold these men accountable for choosing to do nothing," said Trepel as she finished her statement.

Defense attorney Robert Paule, representing Tou Thao, walked jurors through the step-by-step actions of May 25, 2020, when the officers responded to a call of Floyd passing a counterfeit bill at Cup Foods at 28th and Chicago in Minneapolis.

Paule concluded his statement by saying "the events that occurred that day are indeed a tragedy. The fact that something ends tragically does not mean a crime has been committed."

"That does not mean the actions of Mr. Thao were criminal," Paule added.

Next up, defense attorney Thomas Plunkett, representing J. Alexander Kueng, more clearly signaled the strategy his defense will take. He says the problem is with the training and structure of the Minneapolis Police Department, that the former officers were "let down the Minneapolis Police administration.

Plunkett told jurors this case calls into question the training officers received about intervening in situations like this, that even though the department has a policy of "duty to intervene," written by former Chief Medaria Arradondo, he contends very little time was spent on educating officers about the policy.

Another issue that will get a lot of attention is the idea of "willfully" depriving of constitutional rights. Plunkett says the government has to prove "that Alexander Kueng acted with a bad purpose and a bad motive" and with "a specific intent to harm George Floyd."