Four police officers accused of murdering George Floyd, the 46-year-old African-American man whose death in May sparked nationwide protests, appeared together in Minneapolis court for the first time Friday.
As scores of protestors outside the Family Justice Center demanded justice, the four officers sought separate trials in the case, as court filings showed each seeking to pin the blame for Floyd’s death on the others.
Derek Chauvin, charged with second and third degree murder and manslaughter after being filmed pressing his knee to Floyd’s neck until he expired, claims a fentanyl overdose was the cause of death, and accused two other officers of not correctly assessing Floyd’s condition.
Prosecutors rejected the overdose claim as “ludicrous’ and said all four — Chauvin, Thomas Lane, Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao — should be tried together based on “substantial evidence” that they “worked in close concert with one another” when Floyd was killed.
– ‘Brutal and dehumanizing’ murder –
Floyd’s death on May 25 became a symbol of what many says is systemic racism and abuse of African Americans by police, and sparked protests across the country that continue under the banner of “Black Lives matter.”
Prosecutors say Floyd’s death was “vicious, brutal, and dehumanizing.” He had been detained for allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill at a grocery store.
All four defendants say the decision to restrain Floyd, who was handcuffed and held down by two of the officers while under Chauvin’s knee — was reasonably justified.
The officers were all fired one day after Floyd’s death, reflecting the growing seriousness with which US cities are beginning to take police abuse allegations.
Lane, Kueng and Thao face charges of aiding and abetting second degree murder and manslaughter.
– “Black Lives Matter” –
Protestors gathered outside the courthouse in downtown Minneapolis ahead of the hearing, chanting “George Floyd!” and carrying placards and a large flag that read “Black Lives Matter”.
The hearing focused on the difficulty of providing a safe and fair jury trial, scheduled to begin in March 2021, given the massive publicity to the case, which has inflamed opinions on both the right and left sides of the political spectrum.
As the defendants, their lawyers and prosecutors all wore safety masks, the court wrestled over how to seat a jury given the threat of Covid-19, and what defense lawyers said are constant threats over phone and social media that could poison a fair trial.
Jury selection usually involves parading dozens of candidates through a courtroom for live questioning by lawyers from both sides to determine if they are already biased.
District Court Judge Peter Cahill proposed to send questionnaires to potential jurors at their homes.
But defense attorneys said that risks allowing them to look up the case on the internet and form opinions before they reply to the questions.
Besides asking for separate trials, defense lawyers asked for the case to be moved to another jurisdiction.
But Thao’s attorney Robert Paule acknowledged that finding potential jurors who had not seen the news of the case could be impossible.
“There really isn’t a county or even a state in this country where there has not been a lot of publicity about George Floyd’s death,” he said.
Cahill said that for the moment they would stick with the current court, but could consider moving if an acceptable jury could not be assembled. AFP