The former Minneapolis police officer’s attorney argued that news of a record-breaking settlement could prejudice jurors in his murder case.
MINNEAPOLIS (CN) — A massive civil settlement with the family of George Floyd has put the criminal trial against the man accused of murdering him at a crossroads, with attorneys for former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin arguing Monday for a delay.
The Minneapolis City Council unanimously approved a $27 million settlement with Floyd’s family on Friday, the largest wrongful-death settlement in U.S. history. The settlement was announced at a crowded press conference which included family members, their attorneys, Mayor Jacob Frey and members of the City Council.
The enormous payout made national news, and Chauvin’s attorney Eric Nelson argued Monday morning that it threatened to prejudice the halfway-complete jury selection process in the criminal case against his client.
“I am gravely concerned with the news that broke on Friday relevant to the civil settlement in this case,” Nelson told Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill. “By my count this is the third highly prejudicial, incredibly prejudicial, press leak or press release that has very suspicious timing to say the least, and has an incredible propensity to taint a jury pool.”
Chauvin faces second- and third-degree murder and manslaughter charges in Floyd’s death. A video of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck while the Black man begged for mercy and his mother before falling unconscious went viral last May, sparking international protests and riots and throwing Minneapolis into months of political turmoil.
Nelson noted that while Cahill had instructed jurors not to follow news about the case, he hadn’t forbidden them from using social media, where they were bound to see headlines.
“A headline – record $27 million civil settlement… it’s going to be unavoidable,” the attorney said. “I think there are certain things that the court should strongly consider…to protect the jury from future questionable press releases.”
Nelson made several such recommendations, including a continuance of trial and change of venue, calling back already selected jurors to question them on the settlement, and additional juror strikes for the defense.
Prosecutor Steve Schleicher agreed that the timing of the settlement was “not my preference,” but emphasized that it wasn’t the prosecution’s doing.
“All I can say to the court is that there are some things that the state of Minnesota and this prosecution team can control, and there are some things that the state cannot, and does not, control,” he said. “We can control the witnesses we call, we can control the evidence that we bring in, we can control the motions, but we cannot and do not control the civil aspect of this case, we cannot and do not control the Minneapolis City Council, and we certainly cannot and do not control the news cycle.”
He also argued that jurors’ assurances that they could make a decision based on the facts should be trusted: “Through the process of jury selection, what we’ve seen here, your honor, is that while individual jurors have been exposed to media in the case, and they certainly have, the jurors that we’ve seated have expressed that they can set anything that they’ve learned outside of the courtroom aside, and judge the case based on the evidence.”
Schleicher opposed all of Nelson’s proposed remedies, pointing out that Cahill had already tripled the number of strikes afforded to both sides and that a change of venue would not alter jurors’ exposure to a national news story. While the state has argued for a continuance of the case to reduce Covid-19 related risks, he said, he would oppose it on the grounds Nelson proposed.
Cahill agreed that the situation was not ideal, but said he didn’t see malice in it.
“I wish city officials would stop talking about this case so much, but at the same time I don’t find any evil intent that they’re trying to tamper with this criminal case,” the judge said.
He told Nelson that he’d consider re-examining the seven already selected jurors after jury selection was complete, and possibly a continuance, but denied the other motions.
In a parting shot, Nelson pointed to a settlement in the case against Mohamed Noor, a Minneapolis police officer convicted of third-degree murder in 2019. That settlement, he said, had come 24 hours after a verdict, rather than months before. He also made reference to Jeremiah Ellison, a City Council member and the son of Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office is prosecuting the case.
“We’ve got a mayor who’s a lawyer by trade, and he should know better, your honor. And honestly, Mr. Ellison’s son is a City Council member – and I’m not accusing Mr. Ellison of anything, I want to make that very clear – but it is profoundly disturbing to the defense,” Nelson said.
Schleicher took issue with that suggestion.
“There’s nothing to accuse him of,” the prosecutor said. “His son’s on the City Council – they’re not coordinating anything in this regard. The mayor is a lawyer, and the mayor has a job to do.”
Pool reporters reported that, after a recess, Ellison briefly quipped, “Is there anything else anyone would like to not accuse me of?”
Jury selection resumed after recess and an eighth juror was seated Monday morning, a Black man in his 30s. The man’s addition to the panel puts jury selection over the halfway mark to an eventual 14-person jury, including two alternates. The panel currently includes one multiracial woman in her 20s, two Black men in their 30s, a Hispanic man in his 20s, a white woman in her 50s, two white men in their 30s and one in his 20s, according to court officials.
Opening statements in the trial are set to begin March 29. The trial is expected to go on for about four weeks.