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Kanye West's false claim about George Floyd's death may spur lawsuit

A medical examiner ruled that police officers' restraint of Floyd and compression of his neck were the primary causes of death.

George Floyd's family is considering suing Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, for making false claims about Floyd's death, a prominent civil rights lawyer said.

In a recent appearance on the hip-hop podcast Drink Champs, the rapper and fashion designer questioned the cause of Floyd's death, suggesting it was due to fentanyl use and not by Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who knelt on Floyd's neck for 9½ minutes and was convicted of murder.

Chauvin's knee "wasn't even on his neck like that," Ye said. The interview had been viewed nearly 2 million times on YouTube as of Monday afternoon.

Ye said his claims were backed by a documentary by conservative commentator Candace Owens.

George Floyd
George Floyd.Courtesy photo

His remarks drew widespread condemnation, including from civil rights attorney Lee Merritt, who tweeted Sunday: "While one cannot defame the dead, the family of #GeorgeFloyd is considering suit for Kanye's false statements about the manner of his death. Claiming Floyd died from fentanyl not the brutality established criminally and civilly undermines & diminishes the Floyd family's fight."

Merritt said Monday that he had been contacted Sunday by Floyd's brother, Philonise, about whether legal action can be taken to prevent Ye from repeating debunked claims about Floyd's death. Merritt said he is also looking into whether Owens can be sued on similar grounds as well.

Chauvin was convicted in April 2021 of second- and third-degree murder, as well as second-degree manslaughter, and was sentenced in June 2021 to 22 ½ years in prison. He pleaded guilty last year to a federal charge of violating Floyd's civil rights by using excessive force under color of law and was sentenced to just more than 20 years in July. His federal and state sentences are to be served concurrently.

The medical examiner who ruled Floyd's death a homicide testified during Chauvin's state trial that Floyd's heart disease and drug use contributed to his death, but that police officers' restraint of his body and compression of his neck were the primary causes. Other prosecution expert witnesses were explicit in their assessments that Floyd died from asphyxia, or low oxygen.

At his sentencing in the federal civil rights case, Judge Paul Magnuson of U.S. District Court in St. Paul told Chauvin, who was the most senior of the four officers at the scene: "I really don't know why you did what you did. But to put your knee on another person's neck until they expired is simply wrong, and for that conduct you must be substantially punished."

Three other former police officers were also charged in connection with Floyd's death: Thomas Lane, who held down his legs as he cried out that he couldn't breathe; J. Alexander Kueng, who helped restrain Floyd; and Tou Thao, who kept concerned bystanders at bay

The officers encountered Floyd on May 25, 2020, outside a convenience store where he was alleged to have used a fake $20 bill to buy cigarettes. Video of Floyd's final moments taken by bystanders touched off protests around the world against police brutality and systemic racism.

Lane pleaded guilty last month to a state charge of second-degree manslaughter in Floyd's killing and was sentenced to three years in prison. Kueng and Thao, who rejected a plea deal, are set to go on trial this month.

The three men were convicted in federal court of depriving Floyd of his civil rights while acting under government authority when they failed to give him medical aid. Kueng and Thao were also convicted for failing to intervene. In July, Kueng was sentenced in federal court to three years and Thao to three and a half years.

Ye, who has courted controversy in recent weeks, was blocked from posting on Twitter and Instagram about a week ago over antisemitic posts that the social networks said violated their policies. In one tweet, Ye said he would soon go "death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE," according to internet archive records, making an apparent reference to the U.S. defense readiness condition scale known as DEFCON. This month, Ye, who once suggested slavery was a choice, was criticized for wearing a "White Lives Matter" T-shirt, alongside Owens, to his collection at Paris Fashion Week. The Anti-Defamation League has called the phrase hate speech. 

Many criticized Drink Champs and its hosts, rapper N.O.R.E. and DJ EFN, on social media, for giving a platform to Ye's racist talking points that denied the brutality Floyd was subjected to and the excessive force Black people experience in some encounters with police.

During a call-in interview Monday with The Breakfast Club, a nationally syndicated radio show, N.O.R.E. apologized to Floyd's family and said that Drink Champs will edit future broadcasts.

"I just want to be honest. I support freedom of speech. I support anybody, you know, not being censored," he said. "But I do not support anybody being hurt. I did not realize that the George Floyd statements on my show was so hurtful. And you got to realize, it was the first five minutes of the show. Like when he walked in, he told my producer, he said that if he'll stop filming, he'll walk out."

N.O.R.E. also said he "checked" Ye over his comments about Floyd and White Lives Matter, but said it was so late in the episode and "I was already inebriated at that time that maybe people looked over it."

"I apologize to the George Floyd family," he said. "I apologize to anybody that was hurt by Kanye West's comments."

Early Monday, it was announced that Ye had agreed in principle to acquire the conservative-oriented social media app Parler. Parlement Technologies, the parent company of Parler, announced "it has entered into an agreement in principle to sell Parler" to Ye, who has been "taking a bold stance against his recent censorship from Big Tech."

"In a world where conservative opinions are considered to be controversial we have to make sure we have the right to freely express ourselves," Ye said in a statement.

George Farmer, the chief executive of Parlement, who is married to Owens, said in a statement Monday that "Ye's acquiring of Parler will strengthen our ability to create an uncancelable ecosystem."