By Holly Bailey
Minneapolis – The former police officers charged with killing George Floyd will be tried together next March in a downtown Minneapolis courthouse, though the judge overseeing the criminal case said he would reconsider a change of venue motion if security or other issues arise.
In a series of rulings filed Wednesday but made public Thursday, Hennepin County District Court Judge Peter Cahill denied defence motions for separate trials in which the former officers’ attorneys claimed their clients will be presenting “antagonistic defences” that could jeopardize their right to a fair trial. Such defences could include individual officers arguing that they are not responsible for Floyd’s death but alleging that other officers should take responsibility for the slaying.
Cahill denied those motions, arguing in a 51-page ruling that evidence against the former Minneapolis officers – Derek Chauvin, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao – “will substantially overlap” and that separate trials would be complex and place an “undue burden” on state prosecutors and the court system.
Citing security threats, the judge also ruled that jurors in the case will be publicly anonymous – their names, addresses and other identifying information known only to the court and involved attorneys until after the trial. He also ruled that jurors will be partially sequestered; they will be allowed to sleep in their own homes, but the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office will transport them to the courthouse from a remote meeting point each day to maintain their privacy.
Cahill also decided that there can be audio and video coverage of the trial – against prosecutors’ wishes – because of the anticipated need to maintain social distancing during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
In a separate ruling, the judge also declined to move the trial out of Hennepin County, rejecting defence concerns about the ability to seat an impartial jury given the intense media coverage of the case and the possibility of protests that could threaten the safety of participants, including jurors. Cahill wrote that a “fair and safe trial” can be held in Minneapolis and pointed out that “no corner of the state of Minnesota has been shielded from pretrial publicity regarding the death of George Floyd.”
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office is overseeing the prosecution, said he was “satisfied” by the court’s decisions and believes the case should go forward as planned.
“The murder of George Floyd occurred in Minneapolis, and it is right that the defendants should be tried in Minneapolis,” Ellison said. “It is also true that they acted in concert with each other and the evidence against them is similar, so it is right to try them in one trial.”
Floyd died May 25 while handcuffed and restrained facedown on a South Minneapolis street as police investigated a 911 call about a counterfeit $20 bill that had been passed at Cup Foods, a local convenience store. During a struggle with police, Floyd was placed on the ground, where Chauvin pressed his knee into the man’s neck for approximately nine minutes as Floyd repeatedly complained of struggling to breathe. Floyd ultimately lost consciousness and lost a pulse while subdued.
The former officers have offered various defences. Through their attorneys, Kueng and Lane, who were rookies who had been on the job full time for less than a week, have sought to shift blame to Chauvin, a 19-year veteran of the Minnepolis Police Department who was the senior officer at the scene. Chauvin has blamed Kueng and Lane, suggesting they were in control of the scene and did not do enough to de-escalate the situation with Floyd. Thao, who was handling crowd control, has said his job was to be a “human traffic cone” and that he was not paying close attention to the scene behind him as he kept onlookers at bay.
Floyd’s death sparked a nationwide movement for social and racial justice, with protests emerging in cities from coast to coast along with a renewed and widespread push for police reform. Some of the protests have pitted social justice activists against those backing law enforcement officers.
Chauvin is facing second-degree unintentional murder and manslaughter charges; Kueng, Lane and Thao are charged with aiding and abetting.