Attorneys representing the four former Minneapolis police officers charged in the killing of George Floyd want their clients tried separately.
The attorneys filed objections Tuesday objecting to an attempt by the prosecution to join all four cases in one trial. They cited several similar reasons for their positions, but their filings also revealed serious concerns that what's best for one defendant may not serve others. And they expressed fears that their clients were being scapegoated for Floyd's death.
Floyd died in police custody May 25 when the former officers arrested him on suspicion of passing a counterfeit $20 bill at a south Minneapolis convenience store. Toxicology reports showed he had a potentially lethal amount of fentanyl in his system, along with other drugs.
So far, a single trial has been scheduled for March 8 in Hennepin County District Court. Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill will hear oral arguments Friday on whether the defendants should be tried jointly, individually or in some combination. He also will hear arguments on motions to move the trial out of the metro and motions for dismissals from each defendant.
The attorney for former officer Derek Chauvin, who knelt on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes, argued that there's a risk the other three defendants could collude to get Chauvin convicted on a specific count that would theoretically allow them to "walk free."
"As is evident from pretrial pleadings, the other three defendants are prepared to place the blame for Mr. Floyd's death squarely on Mr. Chauvin's shoulders," wrote attorney Eric Nelson. " Such a possibility is less likely if Mr. Chauvin were tried separately from the other defendants."
Last month, prosecutors filed a motion seeking to try all four defendants at once, arguing that witnesses and family members "are likely to be traumatized by multiple trials" and that the "interests of justice" necessitate one trial.
Chauvin is charged with one count each of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the May 25 incident.
Former officers J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao are each charged with aiding and abetting manslaughter and second-degree murder.
Nelson argued that they could "work together to imply" that Chauvin is guilty of third-degree murder and not the other charges, which would free them because they are not charged as accomplices in the third-degree count.
"Mr. Chauvin will be required to defend the case differently from the other defendants," Nelson wrote. "While they will need to cast doubt on their knowledge of Mr. Chauvin's alleged intent — which, as is evident from their pretrial pleadings, they have already begun to do — Mr. Chauvin will need to dispute that he intended to assault Mr. Floyd."
Kueng's attorney, Thomas Plunkett, said flatly that he intended to "shift blame onto Chauvin during trial."
Nelson proposed that Chauvin could be tried separately and the other defendants could be tried together to reduce the burden on the court system and witnesses. But the other defense attorneys advocated for individual trials.
"The defenses are inconsistent and the cases cannot be tried together," argued Earl Gray, who represents Lane.
Gray and Plunkett previously have noted that their clients were rookies with less than a week of experience on the job and that they relied on guidance from Chauvin, a 19-year veteran, during Floyd's arrest.
Chauvin had served as one of Kueng's field training officers and Lane had contact with Chauvin while he was still in training. Kueng and Lane were not in training at the time Floyd was killed, however, and Chauvin had no direct supervisory role over them at the time of Floyd's arrest.
"There are very likely going to be antagonistic defenses presented at the trial," Gray wrote. "It is plausible that all Officers have a different version of what happened and Officers place [sic] blame on one another."
Robert Paule, who represents Thao, has argued in previous filings that his client was focused on controlling angry bystanders and didn't have full view of the three arresting officers as they pinned Floyd down in the street.
Thao should be tried separately because his role was "absolutely distinct" from the others, Paule argued, and because he did not work "in close concert" with them. He said there is no clarity on how similar the evidence will be for each case, and argued that "there is a high likelihood that mutually antagonistic defenses will arise in a joint trial."
Plunkett expressed concerns with an interview Thao gave to investigators.
"Thao made several remarks deflecting the specter of guilt upon the other 3 charged officers, claiming he was just backing them … and operating in good faith that they knew what they were doing," Plunkett wrote. That kind of "finger pointing" led to a new trial in an unrelated case, he said.
Kueng might argue that he did not know Chauvin was going to commit a crime or that his presence or actions would help him do so, Plunkett wrote, stressing that his defense "is clearly antagonistic to Chauvin."
Prosecutors have argued in earlier motions that the evidence in each case is similar, and that one trial would streamline logistics for witnesses, for Floyd's family, for the court and for the community.
"Trying these cases jointly would ensure that the jury understands … all of the evidence and the complete picture of George Floyd's death," they argued. "And it would allow the community and the nation to absorb the verdicts for the four Defendants at once."
Nelson pushed back. Any burdens on witnesses would be limited because much of the evidence was captured on video, he wrote.
Plunkett said no witnesses were particularly vulnerable. And each attorney argued that travel issues for Floyd's family should not be an issue in a criminal trial.