Federal judge denies request for 3 ex-officers to be tried apart from Chauvin in civil rights case

(KSTP) – A magistrate judge has denied requests to separate the cases of the former Minneapolis police officers involved in George Floyd’s death in a federal civil rights case related to the encounter.

The defense attorneys representing Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng submitted motions in August requesting to have their cases severed from Derek Chauvin, who has already been convicted of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter for his role in Floyd’s death. A judge sentenced him to 22½ years in prison.

Bystander video of the encounter shows Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for several minutes while Lane and Kueng kneeled on Floyd’s back and legs. Thao stood to the side and acted as a buffer between the officers arresting Floyd and the crowd gathering on the sidewalk.

In the motions requesting severance of the officers’ cases, attorneys argued it would be difficult for jurors to distinguish each officer’s alleged actions from those of the co-defendants and jurors might inadvertently connect evidence submitted for one count to another.

The federal indictment alleges Chauvin violated Floyd’s right to be free from unreasonable seizure and 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. All four officers are also charged with depriving Floyd of his rights when they failed to provide him with medical care.

In a ruling Monday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Tony Leung denied those motions for severance, but he did not completely eliminate the possibility of having the former officers tried separately if a development arises that would justify separate trials.

Leung argued that the federal criminal system favors trying defendants together and that such arrangements are common.

"Joinder of Chauvin, Thao, Kueng, and Lane is appropriate in this federal case given the significant overlap and interplay of the charges against them," he wrote.

Leung stated the actions of Chauvin, Thao, Kueng and Lane all happened at the same time and place and video evidence shows all four officers together, so regardless of whether their cases are joined or not, jurors will still see how the other defendants’ actions interplayed with Chauvin’s.

The judge also said the attorneys representing the three former officers did not show that a joint trial would harm the defendants’ right to fair legal process. Rather, he argued the opposite — that having all four tried together would actually help the jurors "by giving them the best perspective on all of the evidence, allowing them to assess relative culpability" and "reach a just verdict."

Lane, Kueng and Thao face state charges of aiding and abetting second-degree murder and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter in connection with Floyd’s death. Their trial for those charges is set to begin March 7.

A trial date for the civil rights charges has not been set.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.