Four ex-police officers indicted on civil rights charges over George Floyd death

Four ex-police officers indicted on civil rights charges over George Floyd death
In this May 25, 2020 file image from surveillance video, Minneapolis police Officers from left, Tou Thao, Derek Chauvin, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane are seen attempting to take George Floyd into custody in Minneapolis, Minn. (Court TV via AP, Pool, File)

A US federal grand jury has indicted the four former police officers involved in George Floyd’s arrest and death, accusing them of violating the black man’s constitutional rights as he was restrained face-down on the road and gasping for air.

The three-count indictment names Derek Chauvin, Thomas Lane, J Kueng and Tou Thao.

Chauvin, Thao and Kueng are charged with violating Mr Floyd’s right to be free from unreasonable seizure and excessive force. All four officers are charged for failing to provide Mr Floyd with medical care.

Chauvin was also charged in a second indictment, stemming from the arrest and neck restraint of a 14-year-old boy in 2017.

Lane, Thao and Kueng appeared by videolink in US District Court in Minneapolis. Chauvin was not part of the court appearance.

Derek Chauvin, J Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao (Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office/AP

Chauvin was convicted last month on state charges of murder and manslaughter in Mr Floyd’s death and is in Minnesota’s only maximum-security prison as he awaits sentencing.

The other three former officers face a state trial in August, and they are free on bail. They were allowed to remain free after Friday’s federal court appearance.

Mr Floyd, 46, died on May 25 after Chauvin pinned him to the ground with a knee on his neck, even as Mr Floyd, who was handcuffed, repeatedly said he could not breathe.

Kueng and Lane helped restrain him — state prosecutors have said Kueng knelt on Mr Floyd’s back and Mr Lane held down his legs.

State prosecutors say Thao held back bystanders and kept them from intervening during the nine-and-a-half-minute restraint.

Chauvin’s lawyer, Eric Nelson, argued during his murder trial that Chauvin acted reasonably in the situation and Mr Floyd died because of underlying health issues and drug use.

He has filed a request for a new trial, citing many issues including the judge’s refusal to move the trial due to publicity.

Mr Floyd’s arrest and death, which a bystander captured on video, sparked protests nationwide and widespread calls for an end to police brutality and racial inequality.

Protests spread across the US (John Minchillo/AP)

To bring federal charges in deaths involving police, prosecutors must believe an officer acted under the “colour of law”, or government authority, and wilfully deprived someone of their constitutional rights, including the right to be free from unreasonable seizures or the use of unreasonable force.

Roy Austin, who prosecuted such cases as a former deputy assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, said prosecutors have to prove the officers knew what they were doing was wrong in that moment but did it anyway.

Conviction on a federal civil rights charge is punishable by up to life in prison or even the death penalty, but such sentences are extremely rare and federal guidelines rely on complicated formulas that indicate the officers would get much less if convicted.

In Chauvin’s case, if the federal court uses second-degree murder as his underlying offence, he could face anywhere from 14 years to slightly more than 24 years, depending on whether he takes responsibility, said Mark Osler, a former federal prosecutor and professor at the University of St Thomas School of Law.

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