Minnesota Judge Sets Separate Trials for Cops in George Floyd Killing

The ex-officer charged with second-degree murder for kneeling on Floyd’s neck before he died will go on trial first, followed by his three co-defendants charged with aiding and abetting.

From left to right: Derek Chauvin, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao. (Hennepin County Sheriff via AP)

MINNEAPOLIS (CN) — The trial of four former Minneapolis police officers charged in connection with the death of George Floyd has been split in two.

Lead defendant Derek Chauvin, the officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck in May 2020 and sparked a month of civil unrest across the world, will be tried three months ahead of the three other former officers who assisted in Floyd’s arrest, a Hennepin County judge ordered late Monday.

Judge Peter Cahill cited Covid-19 as the driving force behind the decision, which followed a motion for continuance by prosecutors on similar grounds. At a hearing on Friday, Assistant Minnesota Attorney General Matthew Frank and Special Assistant Attorney General Neal Katyal argued that the entire trial should be postponed to June, saying that vaccines could help the nation get a handle on the virus by that time.

Cahill was not so optimistic, but noted at the hearing that the court’s other criminal cases were going on as planned with social-distancing measures in place. In his order, made public Tuesday morning, he wrote that the defendants’ newly announced plans to include co-counsel or legal support at trial swayed his opinion.

“The physical limitations of courtroom C-1856, the largest courtroom in the Hennepin County Government Center, make it impossible to comply with Covid-19 physical restrictions in a joint trial involving all four defendants beginning March 8, 2021,” he wrote, “given the number of lawyers and support personnel the parties have now advised the court are expected to be present during trial.”

Chauvin’s trial is still scheduled for March 8, but Cahill pushed back the trial of co-defendants Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng to begin on Aug. 23.

Chauvin faces a second-degree murder charge in Floyd’s death, and the outcome of that case will likely be a major influence on that of the other three defendants, who are charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder. All four former officers were fired from their positions in the Minneapolis Police Department shortly after Floyd’s death, and all four have been released on bail.

Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office is handling the case alongside that of Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, issued a statement Tuesday expressing disappointment with the decision.

“As we argued several months ago, and as the judge agreed in his November ruling, we believe all four defendants should be tried jointly,” he said. “The evidence against each defendant is similar and multiple trials may retraumatize eyewitnesses and family members and unnecessarily burden the state and the court while also running the risk of prejudicing subsequent jury pools.”

Ellison added that the ongoing pandemic would likely continue to menace the public through March.

“While we are confident that the court has established protocols to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission during trial, we believe, and independent public health experts agree, that with the advent of the vaccine the threat will be significantly abated by mid-year for everyone participating in or with an interest in this case,” he said. “Nevertheless, we are fully prepared and look forward to presenting our case to a jury whenever the court deems fit.”

Video of Floyd’s arrest and death in late May spread rapidly across the world, leading to protests and riots in Minneapolis, its twin city of St. Paul and in many other parts of the U.S. and world. Protests have continued to follow the case in its pretrial stages, with in-person hearings often surrounded by chanting crowds and attorneys on both sides expressing concerns about the potential for further civil unrest.

Also addressed in the order was an ongoing discovery dispute. Cahill found that, contrary to defendants’ assertions, the state had not acted in bad faith in providing discovery to the defense past a 24-hour disclosure deadline.

“While the discovery is voluminous because the investigation is extensive, it appears the State is providing discovery to the defense as quickly as possible,” he wrote.

But the judge said an eight to nine-day for a particularly controversial FBI report of an interview with the doctor who performed Floyd’s autopsy was “material and inexcusable.” Cahill extended the defense’s expert discovery deadlines as a sanction.

Attorneys for the defendants have argued that the report was potentially exculpatory evidence and should have been released to them immediately. In Friday’s hearing, lead prosecutor Matthew Frank said that while most of the discovery delays had resulted from the sheer volume of the evidence being processed, he could not fully account for the delay in providing that report.

Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson of Halberg Criminal Defense, declined to comment, as did Kueng’s attorney Thomas Plunkett.

Attorneys for Thao and Lane did not respond to requests for comment.

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