The federal trial against three former Minneapolis police officers charged in George Floyd’s death began this week. Prosecutors allege the men violated Floyd's civil rights during his May 2020 arrest, a deadly incident that resulted in a murder conviction of another ex-cop: Derek Chauvin.
All three defendants — Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng — have been charged with willfully depriving Floyd of medical assistance. Thao and Kueng are also charged with depriving Floyd of his right to be free from unreasonable seizure by not intervening to stop Chauvin as he knelt on Floyd's neck.
Thao, Lane and Kueng have all pleaded not guilty to the charges. Chauvin pleaded guilty in December to violating Floyd's civil rights.
The three former officers' cases hinge on whether prosecutors can show that they had a “duty to intervene” in the arrest, and attorneys for the defense have already suggested dubious reasons why Floyd — not their clients — was responsible for his own death.
Thao, Lane and Kueng “made a conscious choice over and over again not to act,” federal prosecutor Samantha Trepel told the jury Monday. “They chose not to intervene and stop Chauvin as he killed a man slowly in front of their eyes on a public street in broad daylight.”
But multiple times during witness testimony and cross-examination this week, attorneys for two of the defendants suggested Floyd may have experienced a bout of “excited delirium,” a hotly debated medical diagnosis with supposed symptoms that include superstrength, violence toward others, cardiac arrest and even death.
As the Brookings Institution has noted, the argument is frequently used against victims of police brutality. And given the well-documented history of Black people being profiled and abused because of the racist ways law enforcement officials perceive our bodies to be inherently dangerous, the "excited delirium" argument seems like it could easily be part of that tradition.
Attorneys for Thao and Lane asked two emergency responders and an emergency room doctor whether they had heard of excited delirium and suggested it could have prevented Floyd from receiving proper aid before he died. Chauvin’s attorneys unsuccessfully invoked that same defense during his murder trial.
The three — a paramedic, a fire captain and the ER doctor — who had interacted with Floyd the night of his death reportedly told the court they had heard of "excited delirium" but acknowledged it as a controversial diagnosis.
And none of them said Floyd had suffered from it.
Excited delirium isn’t recognized by multiple major medical organizations, including the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the World Health Organization.
These officers have been relying on it as a crutch to help them hobble away from accountability, but they may soon see it kicked out from under them.
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