A federal grand jury has indicted the four former Minneapolis police officers involved in George Floyd’s arrest and death, accusing them of wilfully violating the black man’s constitutional rights as he was restrained face-down on the road and gasping for air.
A three-count indictment names Derek Chauvin, Thomas Lane, J Kueng and Tou Thao.
Chauvin is charged with violating Mr Floyd’s right to be free from unreasonable seizure and unreasonable force by a police officer.
Thao and Kueng are also charged with violating Mr Floyd’s right to be free from unreasonable seizure, alleging they did not intervene to stop Chauvin as he knelt on Mr Floyd’s neck.
All four officers are charged for their failure to provide Mr Floyd with medical care.
His arrest and death on May 25 last year, which a bystander captured on video, sparked nationwide anger about police treatment of black people and protests calling for an end to police brutality and racial inequities.
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.
Lane, Thao and Kueng made their initial court appearances on Friday by videolink in US District Court in Minneapolis. Chauvin was not part of the court appearance.
He was convicted last month on state charges of murder and manslaughter over Mr Floyd’s death and is in Minnesota’s only maximum-security prison as he awaits sentencing.
The other three former officers face a state trial in August, and are free on bail. They were allowed to remain free after Friday’s federal appearance.
Mr Floyd, 46, died after Chauvin pinned him to the ground with a knee on his neck, even as Mr Floyd, who was handcuffed, repeatedly said he could not breathe.
Kueng and Lane also helped restrain Mr Floyd — state prosecutors say Kueng knelt on his back and Lane held down his legs. State prosecutors say Thao held back bystanders and kept them from intervening during the nine-and-a-half-minute restraint.
Chauvin’s lawyer, Eric Nelson, argued during his murder trial that Chauvin acted reasonably in the situation and Mr Floyd died because of underlying health issues and drug use.
He has filed a request for a new trial, citing issues including the judge’s refusal to move the trial due to publicity.
Ben Crump and the team of lawyers for Mr Floyd’s family said the civil rights charges reinforce “the strength and wisdom” of the Constitution.
“We are encouraged by these charges and eager to see continued justice in this historic case that will impact black citizens and all Americans for generations to come,” they said in a statement.
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 behaviour 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,” Mr Sharpton said.
Minnesota attorney general Keith Ellison said the federal government is responsible for protecting the civil rights of every American and “federal prosecution for the violation of George Floyd’s civil rights is entirely appropriate”, particularly now Chauvin has been convicted of murder.
Conviction on a federal civil rights charge is punishable by up to life in prison or even the death penalty, but such sentences are extremely rare and federal sentencing guidelines rely on complicated formulas that indicate the officers would get much less if convicted.
The indictment in Mr Floyd’s death says Thao and Kueng were aware Chauvin had his knee on Mr Floyd’s neck, even after he became unresponsive, and “wilfully failed to intervene to stop defendant Chauvin’s use of unreasonable force”.
The other indictment, against Chauvin only, alleges he deprived a 14-year-old of his right to be free of unreasonable force when he held the teenager by the throat, hit him on the head with a flashlight and held his knee on the boy’s neck and upper back while he was prone, handcuffed and unresisting.
That encounter was one of several mentioned in state court filings that prosecutors said showed Chauvin had used neck or head and upper body restraints seven times before, including four times state prosecutors said he went too far and held the restraints “beyond the point when such force was needed under the circumstances”.
Bob Bennett, a lawyer for the teenager, said the “familiar behaviour” from Chauvin showed Mr Floyd was not his first victim.
“Obviously he wasn’t restricted to adult males,” Mr Bennett said, adding that using force and a neck restraint against a 14-year-old boy “is troubling in its own right”.