After the conviction, in April, of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, the next step in the case seemed to be the trial of the other three former officers who were involved in Floyd’s death — J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao. The trial was scheduled for August.
Then came a surprise: prosecutors announced that a grand jury had indicted all four officers on federal charges of violating Floyd’s civil rights. With the announcement of federal charges, Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill moved the state trial of Kueng, Lane and Thao to March of 2022.
Now, the focus in the case is on the charges brought by the federal government. Here’s what we know about what the officers are charged with and how the federal trials will go.
What are the officers charged with?
Chauvin, Kueng, Lane and Thao were indicted on charges of violating Section 242 of Title 18 of U.S. Code, or depriving Floyd of his rights under the color of law.
The first count in the indictment charges Chauvin, describing him holding Floyd down with his knee on his neck, resulting in his death, with violating Floyd’s right to be free from unreasonable seizure, “which includes the right to be free from the use of unreasonable force by a police officer.”
The second count concerns Thao and Kueng, alleging they “willfully failed to intervene” to stop Chauvin from using unreasonable force which resulted in Floyd’s death.
The third charge, which names all four officers involved, alleges they violated Floyd’s right “not to be deprived of liberty without to due process of law, which includes an arrestee’s right to be free from a police officer’s deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs.” It goes on to allege Floyd was in “clear need of medical care” and that by “willfully” failing to help, they acted with “deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of harm to Floyd.”
In a separate indictment involving an incident from 2017, Chauvin is charged with two counts of violating the same section of law. These counts involve a 2017 incident with a then-14-year-old who the document says Chauvin held by the throat, struck in the head with a flashlight multiple times and pinned down with his knee despite lack of resistance, resulting in injury.
Are federal civil rights charges like these common?
Civil rights charges like these are relatively rare: Syracuse University found that between 1990 and 2019, federal prosecutors brought roughly 41 of them each year, representing a tiny fraction of federal prosecutions.
Mark Osler, a former federal prosecutor and professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, said it’s more typical to see an officer charged with federal civil rights violations if they are acquitted in state court, as in the case of the officers who beat Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1992 and in the case of Michael Slager, the police officer who shot and killed Walter Scott in South Carolina in 2015.
In fact, the Star Tribune reported that the Justice Department planned to arrest Chauvin at the courthouse on federal charges if he were acquitted of the state ones. When he was convicted, the federal charges came out later.
What do the feds have to prove to convict the officers?
The section the officers are charged with violating describes a person “willfully” violating the rights of another under the color of law, meaning acting or pretending to act within their line of duty. It can be applied to police officers, prison guards, judges and other officials.
“I believe that it’s an intent crime,” said Kenneth Udoibok, a Minneapolis civil rights lawyer (Udoibok disclosed that one of the officers charged is a cousin of his). “What you have to do is show that he willfully subjected someone to that deprivation of rights, resulting in his death. And how else would you show willfulness than being told that a suspect [was] going to kill him, as described by the witnesses.”
How are the federal charges different from the state charges?
First of all, the federal charges are in addition to state criminal cases. In court in Hennepin County, Chauvin was convicted of unintentional second degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. He faces up to 40 — but likely fewer — years in prison. He is scheduled to be sentenced June 25.
At the state level, Kueng, Lane and Thao are currently charged with aiding and abetting both second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Their trial is set to begin March 22, 2022 and is slated to be televised like Chauvin’s was.
The federal charges are felony criminal charges, which means the defendants have a right to a trial by jury. But these charges are different in their severity.
“It is a powerful statute,” Udoibok said. “And it exposes the defendants to serious criminal liability.”
The maximum penalty for actions that violate the law and cause death is a life term or the death penalty, but experts said that was unlikely.
“Potential sentences, if the officers are convicted of any of the charges, are very serious and carry the possibility of around 20 years or more in prison — or even leading up to life in prison, but that seems quite unlikely,” University of St. Thomas associate professor of law Rachel Moran said in an email.
Osler said it’s also important to remember that it’s possible plea negotiations are going on that could result in some of the charges against the officers being dropped or affect sentencing.
What will the proceedings look like?
Rebeccah Parks, a spokesperson for the U.S. District Court in Minnesota, said Thursday a date has not been set for the federal proceedings.
If the cases go to trial, proceedings would likely take place in Minnesota, and the Minnesota U.S. attorney’s office would likely prosecute, Moran said.
Many of the same witnesses could be called with respect to the charges related to Floyd’s death, but since Chauvin is also charged with violating the civil rights in the 2017 incident, there could be witnesses related to that.
Will I be able to watch the federal civil rights proceedings?
Don’t count on it. While the Chauvin trial was broadcast in full, and the 2022 trial of the other three involved officers is slated to be, it’s highly unlikely the federal court would consent to broadcasting the trial.
“It’s an entirely different jurisdiction,” Osler said.