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J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao
This combination of photos provided by the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office shows, from left, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao.(Hennepin County Sheriff's Office via AP)

Jury selection underway in federal trial over Floyd’s death

Jury selection began Thursday in the federal trial of three Minneapolis police officers charged in George Floyd’s killing, with the judge stressing repeatedly that fellow Officer Derek Chauvin’s conviction on state murder charges should not influence the proceedings.

J. Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao are broadly charged with depriving Floyd of his civil rights while acting under government authority. Separately, they’re charged in state court with aiding and abetting both murder and manslaughter as Chauvin used his knee to pin the Black man to the street.

Legal experts say the federal trial will be more complicated than the state trial, scheduled for June 13, because prosecutors in this case have the difficult task of proving the officers willfully violated Floyd’s constitutional rights — unreasonably seizing him and depriving him of liberty without due process.

Phil Turner, a former federal prosecutor, said prosecutors must show that officers should have done something to stop Chauvin, rather than show they did something directly to Floyd, whose videotaped killing triggered worldwide protests, violence and a reexamination of racism and policing.

Would-be jurors, who answered an extensive questionnaire, were brought into a federal courtroom in St. Paul in groups on Thursday, and U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson began questioning them. The process will continue until a group of 40 is chosen. Then, each side will get to use their challenges to strike jurors. In the end, 18 jurors will be picked, including 12 who will deliberate and six alternates.

Among the jurors excused was a man who said he has a problem watching the video of Floyd’s arrest and decided to stop watching it about six months ago. Several others were excused after they said they could not be impartial, including a man who said his faith also prevents him from judging a human being.

One woman was excused after she said she had difficulty with vandalism in the community. Afterward, Magnuson said he understood such concerns about “anarchy in streets” but said “that fear cannot control in a courtroom. That fear has to be overcome.”

Magnuson spoke about the magnitude of the case, telling jurors they must be able to set aside anything they might have learned during Chauvin’s state trial last year and decide this case based upon its own evidence. He singled out some jurors by number and asked them pointedly if they could do so, saying he was “harping and harping and harping” because state and federal law are different and he wanted to ensure they could be objective.

The jury pool for the officers’ federal trial was selected from throughout the state — much more conservative and less diverse than the Minneapolis area the jury for Chauvin’s state trial was drawn from. That jury was evenly divided among whites and nonwhites. The federal court declined a request to provide demographic information on jurors in the civil rights trial.

Magnuson has said he believes jury selection could be done in two days, unlike Chauvin’s state trial, where the judge and attorneys questioned each juror individually and spent more than two weeks picking a panel.

He said the trial is expected to last four weeks. He also acknowledged the media attention on the case, saying, “I’m sure all of you know something about what happened to George Floyd.”

Floyd, 46,  died on May 25, 2020, after Chauvin pinned him to the ground with his knee on Floyd’s neck for 9½ minutes while Floyd was facedown, handcuffed and gasping for air. Kueng knelt on Floyd’s back and Lane held down his legs. Thao kept bystanders from intervening.

Chauvin was sentenced to 22 ½ years in prison on the state charges. In December, he pleaded guilty to a federal count of violating Floyd’s rights.

Federal prosecutions of officers involved in on-duty killings are rare. Prosecutors face a high legal standard to show that an officer willfully deprived someone of their constitutional rights; an accident, bad judgment or negligence isn’t enough to support federal charges. Essentially, prosecutors must prove that the officers knew what they were doing was wrong, but did it anyway.

Kueng, Lane and Thao are all charged with willfully depriving Floyd of the right to be free from an officer’s deliberate indifference to his medical needs. The indictment says the three men saw Floyd clearly needed medical care and failed to aid him.

Thao and Kueng are also charged with a second count alleging they willfully violated Floyd’s right to be free from unreasonable seizure by not stopping Chauvin as he knelt on Floyd’s neck. It’s not clear why Lane is not mentioned in that count, but evidence shows he asked twice whether Floyd should be rolled on his side.

Both counts allege the officers’ actions resulted in Floyd’s death.

Federal civil rights violations that result in death are punishable by up to life in prison or even death, but those stiff sentences are extremely rare and federal sentencing guidelines rely on complicated formulas that indicate the officers would get much less if convicted.

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