By Brendan O'Brien
MINNEAPOLIS (Reuters) - Prosecutors on Wednesday leveled new criminal charges against four Minneapolis police officers implicated in the death of an unarmed black man who was pinned by his neck to the street during an arrest caught on video, sparking nine days of nationwide protest and civil turmoil.
Derek Chauvin, arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and manslaughter in the death of George Floyd, 46, was newly charged with an additional, more serious count of second-degree murder, according to court documents filed in the case.
The added charge, defined under Minnesota law as unintentionally causing another person's death in the commission of a felony offense, can carry a sentence of up to 40 years, 15 years longer than the maximum sentence for third-degree murder.
Chauvin, 44, was the white officer seen in widely circulated video footage kneeling on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes as Floyd gasped for air and repeatedly groaned, "Please, I can't breathe," before growing motionless while bystanders shouted at police to let him up.
Floyd, whom police suspected of trying to pass a counterfeit bill to pay for cigarettes, was pronounced dead at a hospital shortly after the fatal encounter on May 25.
Three fellow officers dismissed from the Minneapolis police department along with Chauvin the following day were charged on Wednesday for the first time in the case - each with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and with aiding and abetting manslaughter.
Those three - Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao - have also been taken into custody. Aiding and abetting second-degree murder carries the same maximum punishment as the underlying offense - 40 years in prison.
Floyd's death has become the latest flashpoint for long-simmering rage over police brutality against African Americans, propelling the highly charged issue of racial justice to the top of the political agenda five months before the U.S. presidential election on Nov. 3.
Scenes of protesters of all races flooding the streets - mostly peaceful but sometimes accompanied by arson, looting and clashes with police - have fueled a sense of crisis but also hopes of change.
The mass public activity followed weeks of lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, which forced millions of Americans out of work and disproportionately affected minorities.
TRIAL MONTHS AWAY
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, a black former U.S. congressman, has requested bail of $1 million for each of the four former officers, court documents showed.
When reached by Reuters over the phone, Lane's attorney, Earl Gray, said he had not received any information on the charges yet. Attorneys for the other officers charged in the case did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
"This is a significant step forward on the road to justice, and we are gratified that this important action was brought before George Floyd's body was laid to rest," Benjamin Crump, attorney for the Floyd family, said in a statement.
At an afternoon news conference, Ellison said winning a conviction "will be hard," noting that Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, whose office filed the original charges against Chauvin, is the only prosecutor in the state to have successfully convicted a police officer for murder.
Fully investigating the case "is going to take months," he said. Protesters had demanded the case be widened to include all the officers who were present during the incident.
Protests erupted in Minneapolis and elsewhere the night after Floyd's death and have since spread to dozens of cities large and small across the United States.
In many cities, demonstrators defying nighttime curfews have been met by police in riot gear firing tear gas, mace and rubber bullets to disperse unruly crowds. National Guard troops have been activated in several states to assist local law enforcement.
Authorities and some protest organizers have blamed much of the lawlessness on outside agitators and criminal elements taking advantage of the situation.
The demonstrations had grown mostly peaceful by Wednesday and clashes between police and protesters more sporadic.
Republican President Donald Trump has said justice must be done in Floyd's case but also touted a hard line against violent protests, threatening to use the military to restore order.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he did not back deploying troops to patrol the country.
"The option to use active duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort and only in the most urgent and dire of situations. We are not in one of those situations now," he told a news briefing.
Protesters marched through downtown Washington again on Wednesday evening, chanting, "no justice, no peace," and "black lives matter." Another group gathered near the White House and Lafayette Square, where U.S. Park Police drove peaceful demonstrators from the park on Monday before Trump walked through the park to a church to hold up a Bible for cameras.
At the south Minneapolis street corner where Floyd was arrested, a crowd of hundreds stood in a vigil on Wednesday, some with their fists in the air, some weeping.
"These are baby steps," Kenneth Williams, 54, a black U.S. Navy veteran who lives nearby, said of the newly announced criminal charges in the case. "Somebody should have stepped up and done something at the scene that day."
"Cops have been getting away with this for years, but now we have cameras," he added.
(Reporting by Brendan O'Brien, Nathan Layne, Maria Caspani, Rich McKay, Jonathan Allen, Sharon Bernstein, Dan Whitcomb, Lisa Lambert, Susan Heavey, Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali; Writing by Paul Simao and Steve Gorman; Editing by Howard Goller, Bill Tarrant and Cynthia Osterman)