MINNEAPOLIS – A federal grand jury has indicted the four former Minneapolis police officers involved in George Floyd's arrest and death, accusing them of willfully violating the Black man's constitutional rights as he was restrained face-down on the pavement and gasping for air.
A three-count indictment unsealed Friday names Derek Chauvin, Thomas Lane, J. Kueng and Tou Thao. Chauvin was convicted last month on state charges of murder and manslaughter and is asking for a new trial. The other three are set for state trial on Aug. 23. It's not clear what will happen in this case, but generally the state charges play out before federal charges do.
The indictment sends a strong message about the Justice Department's priorities. Floyd's May 25 arrest and death, which a bystander captured on cellphone video, sparked mass protests nationwide that called for an end to racial inequalities and police mistreatment of Black people.
When President Joe Biden was elected, he promised he'd work to end disparities in the criminal justice system. The indictments were handed up about a week after federal prosecutors brought hate crimes charges in the death of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and announced two sweeping probes into policing in two states.
The Rev. Al Sharpton said the federal charges against the officers show the Justice Department “does not excuse it nor allow police to act as though as what they do is acceptable behavior in the line of duty.”
“What we couldn't get them to do in the case of Eric Garner, Michael Brown in Ferguson, and countless others, we are finally seeing them do today,” Sharpton said.
Floyd, 46, died after Chauvin pinned him to the ground with a knee on his neck, even as Floyd, who was handcuffed, repeatedly said he couldn't breathe. Kueng and Lane also helped restrain Floyd – state prosecutors have said Kueng knelt on Floyd's back and Lane held down Floyd's legs. Thao held back bystanders and kept them from intervening during the 91/2-minute restraint.
Lane, Thao and Kueng made initial court appearances Friday via videoconference in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, and remain free on bond. Chauvin is held in state custody as he awaits sentencing on the state charges and hasn't yet appeared in federal court.
While all four officers are charged broadly with depriving Floyd of his rights while acting under government authority, the indictment breaks down the counts. A count against Chauvin alleges he violated Floyd's right to be free from unreasonable seizure and from unreasonable force by a police officer.
Thao and Kueng are charged with violating Floyd's right to be free from unreasonable seizure by not intervening to stop Chauvin as he knelt on Floyd's neck. It's not clear why Lane, who held down Floyd's legs, is not mentioned in that count, but evidence in the state's case shows that Lane had asked twice whether Floyd should be rolled on his side. All four officers are charged for their failure to provide Floyd with medical care.
Chauvin was also charged in a second indictment, stemming from the use of force and neck restraint of a 14-year-old boy in 2017.
To bring federal charges in deaths involving police, prosecutors must believe an officer acted under the “color of law,” or government authority, and willfully deprived someone of their constitutional rights.
That's a high legal standard. An accident, bad judgment or simple negligence on the officer's part isn't enough to support federal charges; prosecutors have to prove the officer knew what he was doing was wrong in that moment but did it anyway.