Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison upgraded Wednesday the murder charge against one former Minneapolis officer and issued arrest warrants for three others in the death of George Floyd, a case that has ignited mass racial justice protests and rioting nationwide.
The third-degree murder charge filed Friday against Derek Michael Chauvin was replaced with a count of second-degree murder.
The other former officers — J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao — face charges of aiding and abetting second-degree murder and manslaughter.
The second-degree murder charge carries a maximum penalty of 40 years in prison.
“I want to begin with a reminder, and that is we’re here today because George Floyd is not here,” Mr. Ellison said at a press conference. “He should be here. He should be alive. But he’s not. Nine days ago, the world watched Floyd utter his very last words, ‘I can’t breathe,’ as he pled for his life.”
Floyd family attorney Benjamin Crump, who had pushed for first-degree murder charges against Mr. Chavin, said in a statement that Mr. Ellison has held out the possibility of revising the murder charge again as the investigation continues.
“Attorney General Ellison has informed the family that his office will continue to investigate and will upgrade the charges to first-degree murder if the evidence supports it,” Mr. Crump said in a statement.
All four officers were fired shortly after the release of a viral video showing Mr. Chauvin kneeling on the neck of Mr. Floyd, 44, for eight minutes and 46 seconds as he lay face-down and handcuffed during an arrest on a charge of passing a phony $20 bill on Memorial Day at Cup Foods.
All four former officers were in police custody Wednesday night. Mr. Chauvin was arrested Friday. Each was being held on $1 million bail.
Mr. Floyd’s death has thrown the nation into turmoil as untold thousands of protesters take to the streets to call for social justice and decry police brutality, accompanied by destructive vandals and looters who have torched and destroyed public buildings and local businesses.
Even so, Mr. Ellison, a former congressman and deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee, insisted that the charges were filed without regard to the public outcry.
“I can say that I did not allow public pressure to impact our decision-making process,” Mr. Ellison said. “I was prepared to withstand whatever calls came. We made these decisions based on the facts that we have gathered since this murder occurred and made the charges based on the law that we think applies.”
Mr. Ellison took the reins Sunday as the lead prosecutor in the case at Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz’s request, replacing Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, who remains on the prosecution’s legal team.
“We are working together on this case with only one goal: justice for George Floyd,” Mr. Ellison said.
According to the complaint, Mr. Lane held Mr. FLoyd’s legs and then-Officer Kueng pressed down on Mr. Floyd’s back. As Mr. Floyd cried out that he couldn’t breathe, at one point saying, “I’m about to die,” Mr. Lane asked whether they should roll him on his side.
Mr. Chauvin replied, “No, staying put where we got him.” Mr. Lane said he was worried about “excited delirium or whatever,” and Mr. Chauvin responded, “That’s why we have him on his stomach.”
Mr. Kueng checked his pulse and said he couldn’t find one, but Mr. Chauvin kept pressure on Mr. Floyd’s neck for nearly two more minutes.
Mr. Crump called Wednesday’s announcement a “significant step forward on the road to justice.”
“This is a bittersweet moment for the family of George Floyd,” Mr. Crump said in his statement. “We are deeply gratified that Attorney General Keith Ellison took decisive action in this case, arresting and charging all the officers involved in George Floyd’s death and upgrading the charge against Derek Chauvin to felony second-degree murder.”
Mr. Floyd’s relatives have called for peace, saying the Minneapolis man would not have wanted violence as U.S. cities grapple with an outbreak of looting, fire-setting, window-breaking and other destruction, leaving state and local officials to impose curfews and bring in National Guard troops to restore order.
The mayhem began ebbing Sunday in Minneapolis after the governor called in 4,000 National Guard troops to protect buildings and businesses. Violence also has declined in other major cities, including Denver, New York and Washington.
About 30,000 troops have been activated in 31 states to support overwhelmed state, county and local law enforcement during the rioting.
In Congress, the expanded charges against the former officers were applauded on both sides of the aisle.
Rep. Ilhan Omar, Minnesota Democrat, called it “overdue but necessary justice,” even though the charges were filed just nine days after Mr. Floyd died, while Rep. Dan Crenshaw, Texas Republican, said, “Good. This is the right move.
“There was no gray area here. It was a relentless assault against a man who was handcuffed until he died,” Mr. Crenshaw said. “One officer did it, but others let him do it. There must be justice for that.”
The Hennepin County medical examiner found that Mr. Floyd’s death was a homicide and that he died of cardiopulmonary arrest “complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression.”
The county report also found that other significant factors included his underlying health conditions — Mr. Floyd had heart disease — and that he exhibited “fentanyl intoxication” and “recent methamphetamine use.”
Mr. Crump discounted the presence of drugs. He called the finding a “red herring” designed to “assassinate George Floyd’s character.”
At the press conference, Mr. Ellison warned that “winning a conviction will be hard” and noted that Mr. Freeman is the only prosecutor in state history to prosecute an officer for murder. Mr. Freeman said last week that an investigation and charges against police can take months.
Mr. Ellison also said he wanted to “set expectations in a realistic light.”
“In order to be thorough, this is going to take months,” the state attorney general said. “I don’t know how many, but it is better to make sure that we have a solid case, fully investigated, researched, before we go to trial than to rush it.”
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