MINNEAPOLIS (CN) —Two jurors have been excused from the criminal case against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin after news broke of a record-breaking civil settlement with the family of George Floyd.
Both jurors told Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill that they’d heard about a $27 million settlement agreement between the city of Minneapolis and Floyd’s relatives, and that they weren’t sure they could be completely impartial in light of the settlement.
“That dollar amount was kind of shocking to me. That kind of sent the message that the city of Minneapolis felt that something was wrong,” one of the jurors said.
The jurors were back in court Wednesday morning at the request of Chauvin’s attorney Eric Nelson of Halberg Criminal Defense, who argued on Monday that the city’s announcement of the settlement was highly prejudicial. He sought to re-examine the nine already-seated jurors in the case, and also asked Cahill for a continuance or change of venue. Cahill allowed for re-examination, and said Wednesday that he’d address the delay and change-of-venue requests on Friday.
Cahill examined four of the nine jurors on Wednesday, dismissing two for cause. One, a Hispanic man in his 20s, said the settlement reinforced misgivings he already had about Chauvin. Another, a white man in his 30s, said that while he’d experienced some sticker shock at the settlement’s record-setting dollar value, he recognized it was a different case.
“The trial still has the right to play out, right, it hasn’t even started yet,” the juror said.
He also said, however, that the news had swayed him somewhat, and Cahill dismissed him out of an abundance of caution.
Two more jurors were allowed to stay on the panel – a white man in his 20s who spoke in selection about his plans to move to Minneapolis soon and a white woman in her 50s who talked previously about her work leading a local nonprofit. The man said his fiancé had recently warned him not to check the news, and that he had avoided any word of the settlement that way. The woman said that she understood the civil case was different from the criminal one and thought the city was likely to settle regardless of the criminal outcome.
“It wasn’t surprising that the city made this settlement. I think they made their position clear when they decided to defund the police, or take actions or steps towards that,” she said. She did express surprise at the timing, an issue which Cahill has also raised.
The court returned to business as usual after a 45-minute break, calling several new potential jurors.
Cahill also scolded media reporting on the case for disclosing details about the security measures being taken on the 18th floor of the Hennepin County Government Center, where the trial is taking place, and for taking note of materials on counsel tables.
“That is absolutely inappropriate. Any media who are present in this room will refrain from even attempting to look at what is on counsel table," the judge said.
Turning to the security questions, his tone became audibly harsh.
“I find that completely irresponsible, that that would be reported in the media. If that continues, the media’s going to be excluded… I consider this a security issue that’s very serious," he said.
Also on Cahill’s plate this week is a major evidentiary question. Nelson argued on Monday that the judge should reconsider an earlier ruling excluding one of Floyd’s previous arrests, which he said supported the defense’s theory that Floyd ingested drugs shortly before his death in an effort to hide them. Pills containing methamphetamine and fentanyl and DNA recently found in the back of the squad car Floyd was pulled into before his death, he said, warranted reconsideration of the exclusion.
In the earlier incident, Nelson said, paramedics and other medical staff told Floyd that he was at risk of a heart attack or stroke.
“The entire arrest in May of 2019, just over a year prior to Mr. Floyd’s death, is remarkably similar, in multiple ways,” the attorney said, pointing to commonalities in the police response and to foam flecks on Floyd’s mouth.
“I am not a law enforcement officer, and I am certainly not a crime scene forensic technician. What I saw was immediately apparent that what was on the back seat of this squad car was chewed-up drugs,” he said of his own investigation of the car along with Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agents.
Cahill quickly noted that evidence of this type usually requires multiple incidents to establish a pattern.
Prosecutor Matthew Frank agreed, and added that he believed Nelson was talking around his point: “What are we trying to prove here? What is the defense really trying to offer this evidence for?”
“If the fact that they’re offering to prove is that he ingested a controlled substance, and that the additional evidence since you made your previous ruling corroborates that, fine,” Frank said, but added that there was already evidence to that effect. “What we know about Mr. Floyd, what we already had as evidence, is the toxicology report showing the presence of those substances in him. So why do we need to bring in this previous incident?.... There is no need for this prior incident, which is prejudicial and could be used for improper purposes.”
Cahill deferred ruling on that issue and said he would make his decision on Thursday.
Chauvin, who was shown kneeling on Floyd’s neck for several minutes in a viral video that sparked international protests and riots last June, is the first of four officers to go to trial in the Black man’s death. His trial for second- and third-degree murder and manslaughter is scheduled to begin March 29.
Fellow former Minneapolis police officers Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao face aiding-and-abetting charges and are set to go to trial in August.
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