Minnesota Judge Disqualifies Four Prosecutors in George Floyd Case

Protesters gather outside the Hennepin County Family Justice Center in Minneapolis on Friday during a hearing for four former police officers charged in the death of George Floyd. (Courthouse News photo/Andy Monserud)

MINNEAPOLIS (CN) — Pointing to what he called a “sloppy” meeting with a medical examiner, a Minnesota judge on Friday said four members of the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office cannot prosecute the case against Derek Chauvin and three other former Minneapolis police officers over the death of George Floyd.

Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill made that call at a Friday morning hearing in the cases against Chauvin, Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng, which stretched into the afternoon.

The hearing otherwise focused heavily on jury concerns, discovery issues and concerns of expediency. It was headlined by the state’s motion to join the four cases, which all four defendants opposed. Defense attorneys also argued for a change of venue and an anonymized jury, with the state attorney general’s office opposing both proposals. 

The omnibus hearing, held in downtown Minneapolis’ Hennepin County Family Justice Center, was Chauvin’s first in-person appearance in court since he was arrested and charged late in May. Chauvin has appeared via video call at previous hearings and at a Tuesday morning first appearance in a tax fraud case in the Twin Cities exurb of Stillwater. 

In this courtroom sketch, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, center, sits beside his defense attorney during a hearing Friday. (Cedric Hohnstadt via AP)

About a hundred protesters outside the building could be heard throughout the hearing, chanting phrases including “Say his name: George Floyd.” After the hearing, the protesters listened in to a press conference by members of Floyd’s family and their attorneys. 

The family court, court officials said, features the largest courtroom in the city and was selected to enable social distancing between the attorneys, parties and families. The center’s location near Nicollet Mall, where protests and civil unrest erupted two weeks ago, meant that demonstrators were surrounded by boarded-up buildings and fences. 

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman and three other attorneys in his office were removed from the case after a motion by Eric Nelson, Chauvin’s attorney, to disqualify Freeman’s office from the prosecution efforts. Freeman and his staff, Nelson wrote, interviewed the county medical examiner without an attorney present and had leaked information about a plea agreement for Chauvin to the media. 

“Mr. Freeman has made himself a potential witness, should [medical examiner] Dr. Baker testify other than what she wrote, or what [assistant county attorney] Ms. [Amy] Sweasy wrote, during the proceedings,” Nelson said. 

A discussion of whether, and which, attorneys should be disqualified ensued Friday, after which Cahill decided to remove all of the attorneys concerned from the case.

 “I think it was sloppy not to have someone present on one of the primary witnesses in this case,” he said. He acknowledged the option of picking one or more to disqualify,  but said he’d rather not. “By saying ‘this person’s off, but he’s not’ I think I’m directing [a defense attorney’s] case.” 

The motion to combine the cases, filed by Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank on Aug. 12, argued that the majority of evidence involved in the cases will be applicable to all four and that requiring eyewitnesses, some of them minors, to testify multiple times for different trials would cause undue trauma. He also argued that a single trial would help reduce jury prejudice from media attention, which has been a recurring concern in the highly publicized prosecution.  

“The defense’s brief says that the video is not that traumatic, and I think that that’s an astounding argument,” Frank said at the hearing, adding that joinder would speed up the trials substantially. “If you were to try four separate trials, we’re talking about delaying justice for months, maybe for years.” 

Attorneys for all four defendants disagreed, arguing that the charges against Chauvin differed from those against his colleagues and that their various defenses were likely to oppose each other.

“Our client was not involved in the physical restraint, in that he never touched Mr. Floyd,” said Robert Paule, attorney for Thao, who was shown on a viral video keeping bystanders away from Floyd as Chauvin knelt on his neck. “So there’s already the foundation being laid in this case for antagonistic defenses.” 

Hints of opposing defenses have indeed trickled gradually into court filings over the last few months, but all four officers have stopped short of directly blaming each other for Floyd’s death on Memorial Day. Frank argued that those suggestions of opposition are not enough to prevent joinder. Cahill did not rule one way or the other at the hearing.  

Attorneys for Chauvin and for Lane, a rookie officer, have also both argued that Floyd died as a result of a fentanyl overdose rather than from the pressure Chauvin applied to his neck. To make that claim, they sought the admission of evidence from two prior arrests of Floyd, one related to an armed robbery in Texas and one from a 2019 drug arrest in Minneapolis. Cahill denied both requests, but noted that he’d be willing to change his mind if the prosecution made arguments about Floyd’s character. 

Asked about the drug-overdose theory after the hearing, Floyd’s family and their attorneys called it character assassination.

“They’re going to prolong this as long as they can because they have no ability to say what we saw in that video was right,” Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd, said. 

The motion for joinder was just one of dozens filed since the case’s last hearing in July. Attorneys for all four officers have moved for dismissal and for a change of venue, citing the possibility that officials’ pretrial statements and news coverage of the case could taint a jury pool. Each has offered different possible venues for the trial, including St. Louis County District Court in Duluth, Stearns County District Court in the central Minnesota city of St. Cloud, and several rural and suburban counties. 

Not considered at Friday’s hearing were motions to dismiss the cases against all four former officers for lack of probable cause. Decisions on “some, if not all” of the pending motions can be expected by Oct. 15, Cahill wrote in an order before the hearing.  

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