Four former Minneapolis police officers, including convicted murderer Derek Chauvin, were indicted Thursday by a federal grand jury on charges that they violated George Floyd’s constitutional rights when they restrained him on the pavement during a fatal encounter last summer, according to court documents.
The three-count indictment unsealed Friday accuses Chauvin, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao of depriving Floyd of his rights under the law during the arrest that left Floyd dead on May 25, 2020, and touched off a wave of protests worldwide.
The indictment states that Chauvin, while aided and abetted by the other three officers, willfully deprived George Floyd of his constitutional right to be “free from an unreasonable seizure, which includes the right to be free from the use of unreasonable force by a police officer.”
Chauvin, the indictment said, held his left knee on Floyd’s neck, and his right knee on Floyd’s back and arm, as Floyd laid on the ground “handcuffed and unresisting,” and did not relent even after Floyd became unresponsive.
The indictment also alleges that the defendants violated Floyd’s right “to be free from a police officer’s deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs.” This violation occurred when the officers observed him lying on the ground in need of medical care, “and willfully failed to aid Floyd,” the document said.
The Star-Tribune first reported on April 29 that federal prosecutors planned to ask a grand jury to indict the men on charges of civil rights violations. The charges come weeks after a Minneapolis jury convicted Chauvin of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in Floyd’s death. Chauvin’s sentencing is set for June 25.
Chauvin’s lawyers have requested a new trial, arguing that the overwhelming publicity surrounding the case deprived him of due process.
The other three officers face state charges of aiding and abetting second-degree murder and are set to stand trial in August.
Attorneys for Chauvin and Keung declined to comment for this story.
A federal grand jury also returned a second indictment against Chauvin on Thursday in connection with a Sept. 4, 2017, incident in which Chauvin allegedly held a 14-year-old student by the throat and struck him multiple times in the head with a flashlight.
In a statement issued Friday afternoon, civil rights attorney Ben Crump and other lawyers for Floyd’s family, who recently reached a $27 million settlement with the city of Minneapolis in a federal civil suit, said the indictment “reinforces the strength and wisdom of the [U.S.] Constitution.”
“The constitutional violations that George suffered are clear, and were also detailed by our civil litigation team last July,” the statement said. “Further, the additional indictment of Derek Chauvin shows a pattern and practice of behavior. We are encouraged by these charges and eager to see continued justice in this historic case that will impact Black citizens and all Americans for generations to come.”
The charges brought against the men — deprivation of rights under color of law — essentially allow the federal government to charge people who either work for a local jurisdiction or for a state who, under the guise of their employment, violate someone’s rights, said Arthur Ago, director of the Criminal Justice Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
If government employees, like police officers, use or misuse the power provided to them by their position, they are acting “under color of law,” the Department of Justice said in a press release announcing the indictment.
“In other words, this is a statute that was created, so local officials cannot hide behind and avoid prosecution within their own states,” Ago said. “It allows the federal government to prosecute them for violating an individual's rights at the federal level, if the state refuses to prosecute them. What frequently happens is, these prosecutions will go hand-in-hand with a state prosecution.”
But, Ago added, it’s not typical for the federal government to bring these charges against police officers because it can be difficult to prove that the person willfully deprived an individual’s rights. Ago cited the Justice Department’s decision announced in December 2020 that it found “insufficient evidence to support federal criminal charges” against the officers involved in Tamir Rice’s 2014 death, according to the department, which noted that it examined the facts of the case under the deprivation of rights statute.
“This shows a shift in the way that the Biden administration is approaching these types of cases versus actually many other administrations before it,” Ago said. “This turning point is a positive one.”
According to the Justice Department, charges of deprivation of rights is punishable “by a range of imprisonment up to a life term, or the death penalty, depending upon the circumstances of the crime, and the resulting injury, if any.” Ago said it’s hard to predict, at this early stage in the case, what potential punishment the men could face if they are convicted.
It also remains to be seen whether this new case will affect the pending proceedings at the state level. Given that Chauvin attorney Eric Nelson’s argument for a new trial is based on the notion that the jury was tainted in the case against his client by learning about the settlement between Minneapolis and the Floyd family, it’s likely that, if convicted, the other officers might seek a similar remedy.
“It’s actually very difficult to make that argument,” Ago said, “and the reason is that during jury selection, there is, and especially in this type of case, extensive questioning of potential jurors. And they are going to be asked, ‘Have you been following this, how much do you know about this?’ So with all of those questions ahead of time, it’s actually quite difficult for the defense attorney to make the argument that the indictment by itself, and even the media coverage of the indictment, has created an unfair jury pool.”
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