Jury selection begins Monday in the trial of two former Minneapolis police officers charged in George Floyd‘s death. J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thou are both charged with aiding and abetting second-degree unintentional murder and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter.
Floyd, who was Black, died on May 25, 2020, after another former officer, Derek Chauvin, who is white, pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for about nine minutes while Floyd was handcuffed and pleading that he couldn’t breathe. Kueng knelt on Floyd’s back during the arrest, and Thou held bystanders back. Another officer, Thomas Lane, has pleaded guilty to a state charge and is not facing trial.
Among key figures for the trial:
Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill handled Chauvin’s trial and is back on the bench for this one. Cahill started in the county public defender’s office in 1984 and worked for 10 years as a prosecutor, serving as top advisor to U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar when she was the county’s head prosecutor.
Cahill, a judge since 2007, is known for being decisive and direct. He allowed livestreaming of Chauvin’s trial because of immense public interest and COVID-19 limitations, saying at a national judicial conference recently that he thought if he hadn’t, the result was “never going to be accepted by the community.”
But cameras are typically not allowed in Minnesota courtrooms, and with COVID-19 restrictions loosening, he’s not permitting livestreaming this time.
Attorney General Keith Ellison led the Chauvin prosecution at the behest of Gov. Tim Walz, after civil rights advocates in the community said Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman didn’t have the trust of the Black community.
Ellison, the state’s first African American elected attorney general, previously served in Congress and worked as a defense attorney. He appeared in court at times during Chauvin’s trial, but was not part of the trial team.
Matthew Frank and Steven Schleicher, both of whom helped convict Chauvin, are back to lead that team. Frank is an experienced attorney who also won a guilty plea in the case of Lois Riess, a Minnesota woman who became notorious for killing her husband in 2018, then killing a woman in Florida and assuming her identity before she was captured.
Schleicher is a former federal prosecutor who led the prosecution of the man who admitted to the 1989 kidnapping and killing of Jacob Wetterling, whose initial disappearance helped inspire a 1994 federal law requiring states to establish sex offender registries.
Kueng, who is Black, was the youngest of the four officers at the scene and a rookie, just days on the job. His personnel file, which says he speaks, reads and writes Russian, did not list any disciplinary actions. At his federal trial, he testified that he deferred to Chauvin because Chauvin was his senior officer and that is what he had been trained to do.
His attorney, Tom Plunkett, represented another former Minneapolis police officer in a high-profile case. Mohamed Noor was convicted in the 2017 fatal shooting of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, who had called 911 to report a possible sexual assault.
Thao, who is Hmong American, was Chauvin’s partner the day of Floyd’s killing and an eight-year veteran. City records showed six complaints against Thao, and he was the subject of a 2017 federal lawsuit accusing him and another officer of excessive force.
During his federal trial, Thao testified that on the day of Floyd’s arrest, he served as “a human traffic cone” to keep traffic away from the other officers. He said his role was crowd control, and he presumed Floyd was breathing.
His attorney, Bob Paule, was a public defender before he started his own practice. His website says he obtained a rare not-guilty verdict for a murder defendant via a mental illness defense. He also said he was part of a team that got 23 murder charges dismissed in another case, after challenging that prosecutors acted with misconduct during grand jury proceedings.
Floyd, 46, moved to Minneapolis from Houston several years before his death in hopes of finding work but had lost his job as a restaurant bouncer due to COVID-19. On May 25, 2020, an employee at a Minneapolis grocery store called the police saying Floyd tried to pass a counterfeit $20 bill.
His girlfriend, Courteney Ross, tearfully testified at Chauvin’s trial that she met Floyd in 2017 at a Salvation Army shelter, and that she and Floyd both struggled with addiction to opioids. She said he suffered an overdose in March 2020, but then had been clean for many weeks. She said she suspected he began using again about two weeks before his death because his behavior changed. She said both she and Floyd “tried really hard to break that addiction many times.”
One of Floyd’s brothers, Philonise Floyd, testified at Chauvin’s trial that George Floyd was a leader in the family, and that they grew up poor in Houston’s Third Ward.
“He used to make the best banana mayonnaise sandwiches,” Philonise Floyd recalled, saying: “George couldn’t cook. He couldn’t boil water.”
A jury of 16 Hennepin County residents will be picked to hear the evidence, and 12 will ultimately deliberate. Their names will be kept confidential until further court order. Hundreds of jurors were summoned, and sent a 17-page questionnaire to gauge their experiences and thoughts on issues including civil rights, policing and their overall trust of officers.