Although Minnesota prosecutors are unhappy about the change, Minnesotans should applaud a recent judicial decision to allow cameras and audio in the courtroom during the George Floyd murder trial.
Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill issued the historic ruling late last week, rightly arguing that the March trial should be livestreamed because of the national and international interest in the case and the limited courtroom space and public access to the proceedings caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Monday, state prosecutors filed a motion asking Cahill to reconsider his order, reiterating objections the attorney general's office raised in July. At that time, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison's team said that while his office supported a public trial, " … the State is concerned that live audio and visual coverage in the courtroom may create more problems than they will solve."
They also argued that live audio and visual coverage could alter the way lawyers present evidence, subject trial participants to greater media scrutiny and be intimidating to witnesses — all problems that could affect conducting a fair trial.
Cahill made the right call. It's in the best interest of trial participants and the public for this high-profile trial to be as accessible as possible. As Cahill wrote, the "only way to vindicate the defendants' constitutional right to a public trial and the media's and public's constitutional rights of access to criminal trials is to allow audio and video coverage of the trial."
The trial for former Minneapolis police officers Derek Chauvin, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao will be closely followed. Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter in connection with Floyd's May 25 death while in police custody; the others are charged with aiding and abetting him. All four are free on bail.
While many other states have permitted cameras in the courtroom, Minnesota has rarely done so. The Star Tribune and other news media organizations have long advocated for greater public access.
In making his decision, Cahill made the case that cameras can be allowed in such a way that protects the rights of trial participants (for example, by not showing the jury) and the ability of the news media to provide live coverage. He cited both the First Amendment guarantee of press and public access to trials as well as the Sixth Amendment guarantee that the public may see that defendants are "fairly dealt with and not unjustly condemned."
Social distancing requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic have restricted courtroom access, Cahill noted, and for the Floyd trial those constraints would allow little "if any" room for families and friends of Floyd and the officers, as well as the public and news media.
Cahill's ruling is well-reasoned and fair. Minnesotans should hope it will lead to greater access to the state's courtrooms even after the pandemic has passed.