MINNEAPOLIS (CN) — The four former police officers charged in connection with the arrest and death of George Floyd will face trial together in March, a Minnesota judge ordered Thursday, and that trial is tentatively staying in Minneapolis.
Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill granted prosecutors’ motions to try fired Minneapolis police officers Derek Chauvin, Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng together in an order filed Wednesday night and released Thursday morning.
In two more orders, Cahill preliminarily denied defense attorneys’ motions for changes of venue and ordered that the jury in the case be kept anonymous and partially sequestered, citing safety and prejudice issues.
In the joinder order, the judge expressed skepticism of the four defendants’ arguments that they had antagonistic defenses. None of them, he said, had ever indicated that they intended to present a defense that does not line up with the other three officers. All four are instead expected to argue that Floyd’s death was not caused by the restraint applied by Chauvin, Lane and Kueng to Floyd’s neck and back but by existing medical conditions and drug toxicity.
Cahill also cited the impact of several trials on eyewitnesses to Floyd’s death, two of whom are minors.
“While testifying at multiple trials is likely to be traumatic for many eyewitnesses, that is especially true for Ms. [Darnella] Frazier and any other minors who were eyewitnesses standing on the sidewalk mere feet from where Chauvin, Kueng and Lane restrained Floyd face-down on Chicago Avenue,” the judge wrote, name-checking the 17-year-old witness whose video of Floyd’s arrest went viral.
The sequestration Cahill ordered remained largely security-focused, without prohibitions on use of electronics.
“Media reports during trial,” he wrote, “are likely to report on the evidence already presented and unlikely to unduly prejudice the jury, even if some members disregard the court’s usual instruction to avoid all media coverage of the case.”
Threats against the defendants and their attorneys, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman and Cahill himself convinced the judge that jurors would also be targeted by members of the public trying to influence the case, he wrote.
Freeman, too, is back on the cases on a limited basis after Cahill vacated a Sept. 11 order removing him and three attorneys in his office. The earlier bench order came in response to a meeting Freeman held with the other attorneys and Hennepin County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Andrew Baker without a non-attorney witness.
Cahill described that meeting as “sloppy” at the time, but walked his phrasing back somewhat in the order reinstating the state attorneys.
“The court’s only regret in using the word ‘sloppy’ is that it was imprecise,” he wrote. “The court intended to describe the state’s conduct as ‘careless,’ and the court stands by that characterization.”
He emphasized that while the state may have taken that to mean Freeman had behaved unethically, that was not his intention. Freeman and the three other lawyers are still not permitted to appear or sign motions or pleadings in the case but can otherwise participate in the prosecution, he ordered.
Cahill also left the door cracked on the change-of-venue question. He found that heavy media coverage meant that “no corner of the state of Minnesota has been shielded from pretrial publicity regarding the death of George Floyd,” but allowed for the parties to present evidence from public opinion surveys and said that he’d reconsider the motions “if circumstances warrant.”
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office has taken the lead on prosecuting the former officers, praised the orders in a statement.
“I’m satisfied by the court’s decisions today. The murder of George Floyd occurred in Minneapolis and it is right that the defendants should be tried in Minneapolis. It is also true that they acted in concert with each other and the evidence against them is similar, so it is right to try them in one trial,” Ellison said.
The trial for all four defendants is scheduled to begin March 8. Cahill wrote that he plans to issue jury summonses earlier than usual in order to put potential jurors through rigorous vetting.
Thomas Plunkett, attorney for Kueng, said they are reviewing the court’s orders.
“My goal is to assure that a fair trial occurs for Mr. Kueng,” he said. “We are happy to have the orders so we can start preparing for our trial and presenting the truth in front of a jury.”
Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, declined to comment. Attorneys for the other two defendants did not respond to requests for comment.
Floyd’s death on May 25 sparked protests and riots in Minneapolis that quickly spread across the world, and protests in the Twin Cities have continued peacefully but unabated after a surge of arson and looting in early summer.
The night before Cahill’s orders were made public, police arrested 646 protesters after corralling them on Interstate 94 in Minneapolis during a march protesting President Donald Trump’s challenges to vote counting in hotly contested states, and to address “the triple pandemic of racism, Covid-19, and recession,” according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The newspaper reported the protests were peaceful, with demonstrators holding an impromptu dance party while waiting to be detained.