Judge in Floyd Murder Case Warns of Tainted Jury Pool

Minnesota’s governor and the Minneapolis police chief are among public officials who have spoken out against the former officers charged in the case.  

Protesters gather at a June 1 memorial for George Floyd in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

MINNEAPOLIS (CN) — At a hearing Monday for the four officers charged in connection with George Floyd’s death, a Minnesota judge warned state prosecutors not to allow further public comment on the case before it goes to trial.  

Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill told Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank that recent statements like those made by Governor Tim Walz, Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arrrodondo, Floyd family attorney Ben Crump and others risked tainting a jury pool and could result in a gag order or change of venue.

Arradondo called Floyd’s death a murder for the first time in a statement last week, a characterization Walz made much earlier. Crump leaked the planned trial date of March 8 to local press last week. That news was confirmed when Cahill tentatively set that date Monday, with the caveat that if the four cases are not joined he would prioritize those of Derek Chauvin and Tou Thao, who are still in custody.

Cahill said he recognized that the state attorney general’s office had an obligation to keep Floyd’s family informed of developments in the case, but asked Frank to emphasize the importance of keeping that information out of the public eye.

“From this day forward, everyone has had their warning, and if they don’t abide by the court’s instructions, it will be the court’s gag order, and possibly a change of venue,” the judge said. “The state has met its obligations, I think, with regard to people they control in pretrial publicity coverage, and they will advise those over whom they have influence, but not control.”

Cahill cited similar reasons when he denied the officers’ motion to allow audio and video coverage inside the courtroom for pretrial proceedings on Friday. Defense attorneys Earl Gray, Thomas Plunkett, Eric Nelson and Robert Paule had requested that video coverage be allowed, arguing that in a case where public officials from the police chief to the governor had made statements decrying their clients, camera access to courtrooms could help them present a different narrative.

“These are people who are involved in the investigation, in the prosecution, and they’ve been making public comments,” said Paule, who represents Thao. “My client has a constitutional right to a fair trial, but there are also ethical considerations here.”

Floyd died May 25 in Minneapolis police custody after Chauvin, who has since been fired along with his three co-defendants, was filmed kneeling on his neck for almost nine minutes.

The graphic video — which also showed Thao, Chauvin’s partner, standing by and keeping distressed bystanders away — quickly went viral and sparked unprecedented civil unrest in Minneapolis that quickly spread across the country and worldwide.

Chauvin was charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter by Attorney General Keith Ellison. Thao and the two other former officers, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng, were charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder.

After Monday’s omnibus hearing, Floyd’s uncle Selwyn Jones and aunt Angela Harrelson said they understood the importance of ensuring that Chauvin, Thao, Lane and Kueng had a fair trial, but said they could not be silent about their nephew’s death.

“I should probably be gagged,” Jones joked.

Growing up in rural North Carolina, he said he’d seen enough court proceedings with black people involved to be skeptical of the court.

“I walk into the courtroom, and I see 15 white people, I think ‘oh, hell, were going through this again,’” Jones said.

Both praised the anti-racism protests and said they were looking for institutional change, regardless of the ex-officers’ fate.

“The Lord used him as a sacrificial lamb to… show just how malicious the devils are. And we’ve seen devils,” Jones said. “My job now is to make sure my nephew didn’t die in vain.”

While omnibus hearings in Minnesota can include pleas, none of the defendants entered one Monday. Cahill scheduled the next hearing in the case for Sept. 11, after the parties have had time to comb through evidence produced in discovery.

Gray, defense attorney for Lane, told Cahill pm Monday that he had already received over 8,000 pages of evidence in discovery, along with a plethora of video, audio and photographic evidence.

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