MINNEAPOLIS (CN) — The state-court trial of three former Minneapolis police officers accused of aiding and abetting the murder of George Floyd has been delayed until next year pending the resolution of federal civil rights charges.
Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill made the decision at the end of a contentious Thursday morning hearing in the cases of former officers Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng. He pushed the officers' August 2021 trial date back to March 7, 2022, citing the logistical problems of conducting two trials so close to each other along with the probability of heavy pretrial publicity.
Lane, Kueng and Thao’s fellow officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of second- and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter late in April for Floyd’s death, and federal prosecutors announced federal civil rights charges against all four officers Friday morning.
Attorneys for all three of the other officers agreed on the motion to delay trial, and prosecutor Matthew Frank raised no objection at Thursday's hearing.
“If nothing else, we need some distance from all the publicity that has occurred and is going to occur this summer,” Cahill said of the move.
The delay also makes time for resolution of several other issues brought up at Thursday’s hearing -- most notably an ongoing controversy over a New York Times story regarding a plea deal prosecutors worked on with Chauvin before it was scuttled by then-U.S. Attorney General William Barr.
The story, based on a leak from unnamed law enforcement officials, revealed that Chauvin and attorney Eric Nelson had reached a deal for Chauvin to plead guilty to third-degree murder in exchange for assurance that he would not face federal charges. That deal reportedly fell through when Barr refused to sign off on it.
After the story went public, Thao’s attorney Robert Paule moved to sanction prosecutors for the leak. Nelson did not join him, and in closed-door discussions, the hearing revealed, Cahill opted not to address the issue directly at the time in order to avoid further publicity before Chauvin’s trial.
Cahill also suggested at that time that prosecutors submit affidavits denying involvement in order to “avoid a circus.” Frank did, and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison submitted a letter addressing the issue.
Cahill said at Thursday’s hearing that he wouldn’t order such a thing, but that submitting those affidavits would help speed the process along. He reiterated that point several times in response to Frank’s arguments that while the issue was serious, an order would shift the burden of proof of misconduct from Paule to the state. He said the leak appeared to come from the Department of Justice in any case.
“The articles are about Bill Barr’s role,” Frank said. “We’re no friends of Bill Barr.”
Frank also argued that Paule’s motion for sanctions was a ploy to bolster the case for a change of venue and to spin a media narrative in the defendants’ favor.
“These are personal attacks, aimed at us personally, in an attempt to distract and mislead the public,” he said. None of the jury pool in Chauvin’s case, Frank said, was dismissed because they said they’d heard about the plea deal.
Paule, meanwhile, said that Frank’s affidavit and Ellison’s letter weren’t enough proof that the leak didn’t come from Ellison’s office. “I will be very blunt with the court; this is the single worst incidence of misconduct I have seen in my career,” he said, adding that even if the FBI, Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension or Minneapolis Police Department was the source of the leak, the prosecution would still be responsible for it.