Minnesota Judge Refuses to Delay Chauvin Trial or Change Venue

The judge said moving or pushing back the trial of the officer charged with murder in the death of George Floyd wouldn’t mitigate the impacts of pretrial publicity.

Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill discusses pretrial motions Friday prior to continuing jury selection in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. (Court TV via AP, Pool)

MINNEAPOLIS (CN) — The trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the death of George Floyd will go on as scheduled in Minneapolis, and evidence related to an earlier arrest Chauvin’s attorney says speaks to a pattern of behavior for Floyd will be tightly restricted. 

Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill ruled on several motions before proceeding to jury selection in Chauvin’s second- and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter trial on Friday morning, putting a stop to arguments regarding the potentially prejudicial impact of a series of press junkets by Minneapolis officials. 

The city recently announced a $27 million settlement with the Floyd family, the largest wrongful-death settlement in American history. The record-breaking payout, which is still being finalized, led Cahill to re-interview several jurors and dismiss two after Chauvin’s attorney Eric Nelson of Halberg Criminal Defense argued that news of the settlement could prejudice the mostly seated jury. 

On Thursday, Mayor Jacob Frey and members of the city attorney’s office answered reporter questions about the settlement at a weekly media briefing, leading Nelson to bring back requests he made earlier in the case for a continuance or change of venue. 

Cahill denied both of those motions early Friday morning, saying that while he was surprised to see the impact of the settlement on jurors, he still didn’t think time or distance would improve the fairness of the trial. 

“Unfortunately, I think the pretrial publicity in this case will continue no matter how long we continue it,” he said. “And as far as change of venue, I do not think that would give the defendant any kind of a fair trial beyond what we are doing here today. I don’t think there is any place in the state of Minnesota that has not been subjected to extreme amounts of publicity on this case.” 

Both sides in the case have argued for a continuance at various points in the trial for different reasons. Prosecutors pushed for a later trial shortly after the first Covid-19 vaccines were introduced, arguing that a rise in vaccinations would make the proceedings safer. Cahill denied that motion in Chauvin’s case but split off the trial of fellow officers Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao, finding that having four defendants and their legal teams in the room would make it too crowded for effective social distancing. The trio’s trial is still joined and is now set for August. 

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office is leading the prosecution, nevertheless celebrated the decision on Friday morning in a statement. 

“The court has taken careful, considered steps to mitigate the effects of pretrial publicity that make a continuance and change of venue unnecessary. A week ahead of schedule, both sides have now agreed on 12 jurors, more than half of whom were selected since early last Friday afternoon and all of whom have been carefully screened for impartiality in the face of inevitable pretrial publicity not only in Hennepin County, but in every part of Minnesota,” he said. “As we have said throughout, the state has been and is ready to proceed to trial on schedule. We look forward to presenting our case against Mr. Chauvin … to a fair and impartial jury in Hennepin County.” 

Also at issue Friday was a May 6, 2019, interaction Floyd had with police which ended in severe medical distress. Nelson and attorneys for the three other former officers involved in Floyd’s May 25, 2020, arrest and death have pointed to the earlier incident, in which police say Floyd ate drugs when they confronted him at gunpoint, as showing a modus operandi for Floyd in dealing with police. Floyd was ultimately examined by paramedics, who warned him that his blood pressure was dangerously high. 

Nelson also argued that there were similarities in Floyd’s behavior in both incidents, including calling for his mother, crying and talking about having guns pulled on him in the past. Drug eating and emotional distress, defense attorneys argued, were ploys Floyd used in dealing with law enforcement. 

Prosecutors have maintained throughout discussions of the issue that bringing up the incident serves only to inadmissibly smear Floyd’s character. Lead prosecutor Matthew Frank has also pointed out that officers’ recognition that Floyd was in medical distress in that incident led them to quickly turn him over to paramedics, something Chauvin, Kueng, Lane and Thao did not do until Chauvin had been kneeling on Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes. 

Cahill toed a careful line in his admission of the incident on Friday. Testimony about and some body camera footage of the incident, he said, went to the hotly contested issue of Floyd’s cause of death, and some of it should be admitted to that effect. Floyd’s conversation with the paramedics was admissible, he said, as was the initial confrontation where officers say he ingested drugs. 

“The only reason we know this is relevant to cause of death and probative is that subsequent to taking drugs while being encountered by police, similar to May 25 of 2020, Mr. Floyd was checked out by a paramedic,” Cahill said. “Everything leading up to that conversation with the paramedic is not admissible beyond that initial video.” 

“The whole point here is we have medical evidence on what happens when Mr. Floyd is confronted with virtually the same situation. Confrontation by police, at gunpoint, followed by a rapid ingestion of some drugs… that is medical evidence,” the judge added. “Mr. Floyd’s emotional behavior, calling out for his mother, all that is not admissible. Because the emotional behavior and his state of mind is not relevant.” 

That ruled out one of the state’s expert witnesses as well, Cahill said. Psychiatrist Dr. Sara Vinson’s testimony, he found, primarily regarded Floyd’s state of mind in the May 2019 incident. If the defense breached that topic, he said, the state could argue that the door had been opened to her testimony, but as a preliminary matter it wasn’t admissible. 

The trial is set to begin March 29, and Minneapolis is bracing for a tense spring. Protests of the trial itself are anticipated, and city officials have said they also plan to clear George Floyd Square, a community-built memorial to Floyd surrounding the site of his death, sometime after the trial. People operating the square have made it clear that police and vehicle traffic aren’t welcome there, but city officials have cited safety concerns and traffic issues as their reasons for clearing it.

Meanwhile, tensions between the Minneapolis Police Department and the city’s poorest residents have only risen in recent weeks. The FBI has been summoned to the square, and a homeless encampment eviction on Thursday morning escalated into violence. 

International eyes are also on the city. United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet highlighted the Chauvin case during a recent Human Rights Council session, saying that the case offered a rare opportunity to see justice for the death of a Black person. 

“Ten months after the killing of George Floyd set off new waves of outrage and demands for change across the world, a key trial related to his killing is now beginning,” Bachelet said, according to the Associated Press. “But this crucial, defining opportunity for justice is denied to countless other families.” 

“So many cases involving deaths of people of African descent never make it to court, and the pain of so many families goes unacknowledged or even denied,” she added.

Chauvin is part of a very small club as a police officer charged with murder for his conduct in the course of his duties. Only 121 officers have been arrested on murder or manslaughter charges for on-duty conduct since 2005, according to the New York Times. Only 44 of those were convicted, most of lesser charges. About 1,000 Americans are killed by police annually. 

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