MINNEAPOLIS — Prosecutors on Wednesday expanded their case against the police who were at the scene of George Floyd's death, charging three of the officers with aiding and abetting a murder and upgrading the charges against the officer who pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck to second-degree murder.
The most serious charge was filed against Derek Chauvin, whose caught-on-video treatment of the handcuffed Floyd spurred worldwide protests. Three other officers — Thomas Lane, J. Kueng and Tou Thao — were charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. All four were fired last week.
The new charges were sought by Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who called the protests unleashed by the death “dramatic and necessary” and said Floyd “should be here and he is not.”
“His life had value, and we will seek justice,” Ellison said.
Benjamin Crump, an attorney for Floyd’s family, called it “a bittersweet moment” and “a significant step forward on the road to justice.” Crump said Elison had told the family he would continue his investigation into Floyd’s death and upgrade the charge to first-degree murder if warranted.
Chauvin was initially charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter
The move powerfully punctuated an unprecedented week in modern American history, in which largely peaceful protests took place in communities of all sizes but were rocked by bouts of violence, including deadly attacks on officers, rampant thefts and arson in some places.
Earlier Wednesday, in a visit to a makeshift shrine at the street corner where Floyd died, his family had again called for the arrests of Lane, Kueng and Thao, a demand echoed by their attorney.
“We are demanding justice,” Crump said.
Personnel records released by the city show Chauvin served as a military policeman in the U.S. Army in the late 1990s. Since being hired as a police officer in 2001, he has been awarded two medals of valor: One for being part of a group of officers who opened fire on a stabbing suspect after the man pointed a shotgun at them in 2006, and one for apprehending another man in a domestic incident in 2008. In the latter incident, Chauvin broke down a bathroom door and shot the man in the stomach.
Chauvin was reprimanded in 2008 for pulling a woman out of her car in 2007, frisking her and placing her in his squad car after he stopped her for speeding 10 miles per hour over the limit. His dashboard camera was not activated and a report said he could have interviewed the woman while standing outside her car.
Lane, 37, and Kueng both joined the department in February 2019 and neither have any complaints on their files.
Lane previously worked as a correctional officer at the Hennepin County juvenile jail and as a probation officer at a residential treatment facility for adolescent boys.
Kueng was a 2018 graduate of the University of Minnesota where he worked part-time on campus security. He also worked as a theft-prevention officer at Macy’s in downtown Minneapolis while he was in college.
Tou Thao, a native Hmong speaker, joined the police force as a part-time community service officer in 2008 and was promoted to police officer in 2009. He was laid off later that year due to budget cuts and rehired in 2012.
Gov. Tim Walz and the Minnesota Department of Human Rights on Tuesday launched a civil rights investigation of the Minneapolis Police Department and its history of racial discrimination, in hopes of forcing widespread change.
The official autopsy by the county medical examiner concluded that Floyd's death was caused by cardiac arrest as police restrained him and compressed his neck. The medical examiner also listed fentanyl intoxication and recent methamphetamine use, but not as the cause of death.
Crump and the Floyd family commissioned a separate autopsy that concluded he died of asphyxiation due to neck and back compression due to Chauvin's knee on his neck and other responding officers' knees in his back, which made it impossible for him to breathe.
Minnesota AG cautioned for patience
Ellison was appointed by Gov. Tim Walz to take over the case from Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman on Sunday.
A former Democratic congressman, Ellison previously said that he had "every expectation" that charges will be filed against the officers and that he hoped they'd come soon. But on Monday, after taking over the case, he cautioned against a rush to judgment and said prosecutors will be careful and methodical in bringing charges.
"We are moving as expeditiously, quickly and effectively as we can," he said. "But I need to protect this prosecution. I am not going to create a situation where somebody can say this was a rush to judgement."
Police officers are rarely charged with crimes for violence against black men, and even in those rare cases, juries have repeatedly shown an unwillingness to convict. The list of such failed cases is long.
In 2017, for example, the Minnesota police officer who fatally shot Philando Castile was found not guilty of second-degree manslaughter and intentional discharge of firearm that endangers safety.