News Outlets Seek Release of Floyd Body-Cam Video After Leak

Protesters gather at a memorial for George Floyd in Minneapolis on June 1, 2020. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

MINNEAPOLIS (CN) — In the wake of a partial leak of body-camera footage of George Floyd’s arrest and death to a British tabloid, a coalition of media outlets argued Tuesday for a full release of the footage by a Minnesota judge.   

Grainy cellphone recordings of a portion of the footage were released by the Daily Mail on Monday afternoon despite Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill’s determination that the footage should not be released online.

The media coalition, which includes local newspapers and broadcasters alongside national outlets, has advocated for the release of the footage since it was filed alongside a motion to dismiss aiding-and-abetting charges against former Minneapolis police officer Thomas Lane, the first officer to confront Floyd in his fatal Memorial Day arrest.

The full videos — just over an hour of footage — are available for viewing by appointment at the Hennepin County Courthouse in downtown Minneapolis. The leaked snippets, which include about 26 minutes of the videos, appear to have been filmed with a cellphone or other handheld camera by someone watching the videos. The Daily Mail has declined to reveal its source.

The uncut footage, from the body-worn cameras of Lane and his fellow junior officer J. Alexander Kueng, shows Floyd’s arrest from its beginning to his apparent death in an ambulance.  

The Daily Mail footage is sparser and fragmented, apparently filmed with a camera pointed at a laptop displaying the video. An eight-minute snippet taken from Lane’s camera begins as Lane approaches Floyd, sitting in the driver’s seat of a minivan, and ends with Floyd on the pavement, breathing heavily and pleading for his life. A longer video from Kueng’s camera includes Kueng’s initial conversation with staff at Cup Foods, where Floyd allegedly spent a counterfeit $20 bill, and continues for just shy of 20 minutes as Floyd goes silent.

The media coalition denied any prior knowledge of the leak in a letter to Judge Cahill filed Tuesday but argued against continuing to keep the full footage offline.

“Even before the leak, members of the public — including potential jurors — had easy access to bystander video showing the encounter between Mr. Floyd and the four defendants, the transcripts of the BWC footage previously released by the court, and descriptions of the BWC footage from journalists who viewed it at the courthouse,” coalition attorney Leita Walker wrote.

With all of that information already available, Walker argued, restrictions on the footage’s dissemination are not serving any cognizable interest.

“Indeed,” she added, “continued restrictions on press and public access to the BWC footage may actually undermine the court’s efforts to ensure a fair trial given the piecemeal and incomplete nature of what is circulating online.”

Defense attorneys for all four of the former officers charged in Floyd’s death have taken up a similar argument at various points, saying that disseminating the footage will help them create a counternarrative to the one painted by the extensive protests and public statements from officials following Floyd’s death. Earl Gray, representing Lane, has also criticized media coverage for being “substantially unfair against my client.”

That has been an uphill battle with Cahill, who has made efforts including a now-vacated gag order to keep a lid on discussion of the officers’ cases outside of the courtroom.

Cahill has also discussed the possibility of a change of venue to preserve jury pools, a move that prosecutors have opposed.

University of Minnesota media ethics professor Jane Kirtley said she was skeptical of that idea and opposed the continued half-public status of the full videos.

“We’ve had this battle going on here in Minnesota for a long time over whether body-worn camera footage should be public at all, and if so in what circumstances,” Kirtley said. “I’m a big believer, going back to the old court TV days, that it’s good for the public to be able to see everything that’s available.”

As to worries about tainting the jury pool, Kirtley said the cat is out of the bag as far as videos of Floyd’s arrest go.

“If the argument was that seeing this footage would be inflammatory, would taint the jury pool, would create a distortion – assuming that argument had any merit at all, it’s now… unfortunately been superseded by events,” she said. “The goal to getting your jury pool is not to get jurors who are ignorant, who are totally checked out of the world. The goal is to get a jury pool who will take instructions from the court about setting aside any preconceptions they may have formed.”

The professor added, “Given the pervasive nature of the publicity of this case… I think it’s going to be challenging, but I nevertheless don’t think it’s going to be impossible to empanel an impartial jury in Hennepin County or elsewhere in the Twin Cities.”

A spokesman from Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office, which is prosecuting the case, declined to comment on the media coalition’s letter or the footage leak. Ellison denied leaking the footage on Monday.

Walker, the news outlets’ attorney, was wary of discussing the topic beyond what she’d already written in court, but emphasized that the coalition was playing by Cahill’s rules.

“This organization of media entities has the utmost respect for court orders, and we hope that we’ll soon get one making the footage widely available through the court,” she said.

Gray, who filed the body-camera footage with the court, did not respond to a request for comment.

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