An attorney for one of four former Minneapolis officers charged in George Floyd’s death is highlighting Floyd’s past crimes and history of drug use, calling him an ex-con and “evident danger to the community.”
Another is seizing on Floyd’s medical issues and addiction, saying he likely died from fentanyl, not a knee on his neck.
It’s a common defense strategy that legal experts say will be used to show officers acted reasonably.
Experts say the strategy may resonate with a potential jury pool, even if much of what is said now never comes up at a trial set for next spring.
Floyd died May 25 after Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for roughly nine minutes.
Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter. Thomas Lane, J. Kueng and Tou Thao are charged with aiding and abetting both second-degree murder and manslaughter.
The former officers are in court on Friday for a hearing on several issues, including a prosecution request to try the men together and defense requests to move the trial away from Minneapolis. Defense requests to dismiss charges won’t be addressed at the hearing.
In documents requesting dismissal, Lane’s attorney, Earl Gray, wrote about Floyd’s prior charges of armed robbery and drug possession in Texas.
He called Floyd an ex-con, a liar, an addict, a drug distributor and a danger to the community.
“Mr. Floyd was, as the Officers had suspected, an addict,” Gray wrote. “He was worse than that.”
Ben Crump, an attorney for Floyd’s family, rejected that approach.
“Everything you need to know is on that horrific video,” Crump said. “When police do inexcusable things, the defense is always to kill the victim all over again by dredging up their history and assassinating their character.”
The Texas robbery is unlikely to come up at trial because it wouldn’t be relevant unless the officers had prior knowledge of it.
Kelly Keegan, another attorney not connected to the case, said prior incidents can’t be brought up in court just to smear people, and a judge must weigh whether the information will help the jury or just leave a negative impression.
One past arrest that could come up at trial is a May 2019 incident in which defense attorneys say Floyd acted in a similar way.
Body camera footage from the day Floyd died shows Lane and Kueng approaching a panicked Floyd, who says, “I’m not a bad guy!” and struggles, begging not to be put in a squad car.
Gray wrote that the video shows Floyd had something in his mouth that looked like a fentanyl pill, which disappeared. Autopsy reports show Floyd had fentanyl in his system.
Gray and Eric Nelson, Chauvin’s attorney, wrote that during a May 2019 arrest, Floyd wouldn’t listen to officers’ commands, put something in his mouth, had to be physically removed from a vehicle, then began to cry. In that case, several opioid pills were found, along with cocaine, they wrote.
Nelson compared Floyd’s behavior in both arrests, saying: “Clearly, Mr. Floyd had a modus operandi in the way he acted when approached by police officers while attempting to conceal narcotics.”
Keegan said even if the officers had no knowledge of the 2019 arrest, defense attorneys could argue Floyd had a habit of swallowing drugs, acting scared, crying and struggling when approached by police.
Gray wrote that Floyd shares blame for his death.
“All he had to do is sit in the police car, like every other defendant who is initially arrested,” Gray wrote.
“While attempting to avoid his arrest, all by himself, Mr. Floyd overdosed on Fentanyl. Given his intoxication level, breathing would have been difficult at best. Mr. Floyd’s intentional failure to obey commands, coupled with his overdosing, contributed to his own death.”
Nelson also honed in on Floyd’s past drug use, writing that bringing up Floyd’s history of drug addiction is “not an attempt to assail Mr. Floyd’s character.” He said Floyd most likely died of “fentanyl or a combination of fentanyl and methamphetamine in concert with his underlying health conditions.”
The county medical examiner classified Floyd’s death as a homicide, with his heart stopping while he was restrained by police. A summary report listed fentanyl intoxication and recent methamphetamine use under “other significant conditions” but not under “cause of death.”
According to prosecutors’ notes, Hennepin County Medical Examiner Andrew Baker told prosecutors that absent other apparent causes of death, it “could be acceptable” to rule the death an overdose, based on the level of fentanyl in Floyd’s system. A separate autopsy commissioned for Floyd’s family concluded he died of asphyxiation due to neck and back compression.
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