Comments made by public officials and others about the May 25 killing of George Floyd and the former Minneapolis police officers charged in his death threaten to move court proceedings outside of Hennepin County, a judge warned Monday.
At an omnibus hearing Monday afternoon, several of the defense attorneys representing the former officers — Derek Chauvin, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao — criticized city, county and state officials for expressing opinions they believe have tainted their clients’ constitutional right to a fair trial.
“I’m fighting the battle with one hand,” because of the public statements, said Thao’s attorney, Robert Paule, adding that he planned to file a motion for a change of venue.
Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill agreed that public commentary on the case has reached inappropriate levels, specifically noting that people aligned with the prosecution are pushing it toward a change of venue.
“It’s in everyone’s best interest” that no public statements about the case be made, Cahill said, noting that they’ve come from family, friends and law enforcement officials. “What they’re doing is endangering the right to a fair trial. They need to understand that.”
Persuading the court to move a trial outside of the county in which the alleged crime occurred is typically difficult, and it’s unusual for a judge to so strongly rebuke public officials and others, including Floyd’s supporters, for influencing court proceedings.
The issue dominated the hearings, which took place separately for each defendant and also touched on future court dates, the amount of evidence in the case and whether cameras should be allowed at the trial scheduled for March 8, 2021.
Dozens of media personnel from across the world gathered outside the Hennepin County Public Safety Facility as two of the former officers — Kueng and Lane — arrived through a skyway entrance that connected directly to the building. The two have posted bond or bail and are out of custody.
Floyd’s aunt Angela Harrelson and uncle Selwyn Jones also attended the hearings.
“My nephew was a good dude,” Jones said. “He had problems, everyone has problems, everybody’s got a story, but his story shouldn’t have ended on the streets of Minneapolis, Minnesota, by four people.”
Harrelson said the trial should be held in Hennepin County.
“What’s the purpose of moving it?” she asked. “Honestly, I mean the whole world knows about it, and I’m like, well, where are you going to go? … You can move to Africa; they knew about it. … All that’s going to do is make it inconvenient for the family to get there.”
Chauvin, who is charged with second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, appeared via remote TV from the state prison at Oak Park Heights where he is being held on $1.25 million bail.
The other three are charged with aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter.
Chauvin had no supporters in the downtown Minneapolis courtroom where his attorney, Eric Nelson, and co-defendants appeared in person.
Chauvin planted his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly eight minutes as Floyd, who was handcuffed and lying stomach-down in the street, repeatedly said he couldn’t breathe and warned that he was going to die while the four officers arrested him for allegedly using a fake $20 bill.
Nelson told the judge he would seek a gag order if public commentary about the case continues to escalate.
While Nelson did not name anyone, Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington and Gov. Tim Walz have all called Floyd’s death a “murder,” among other remarks about the case. Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office is leading the prosecution with assistance from the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, has said he is confident a jury will convict the former officers.
Paule later called out those public officials by title, along with Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, President Donald Trump and attorneys for Floyd’s family for speaking about the case.
“There are others involved in this case who do not respect the court and do not respect my client’s right to a fair trial,” Paule said, adding that some people are using the media to further their self-interest.
Cahill asked both defense attorneys and Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank, who is leading the prosecution, to tamp down on public commentary from people they have “control” or “influence” over.
Frank said prosecutors are just as interested in a fair trial and are “acutely” aware of the publicity issues. He told the court his office has done its best to relay the concerns to public officials.
“Legally, we don’t have control over them,” Frank said. “I can tell the court we are doing what we can to avoid these problems as well. Your comments will be shared with those individuals as much as we can.”
Kueng’s attorney, Thomas Plunkett, briefly addressed a motion filed last week by all four defendants, and a new response he filed Monday, to allow cameras at all pretrial and trial proceedings to ensure a fair and public trial in light of the public commentary. The prosecution had objected to the motion, and Cahill ruled last week that no cameras would be allowed at pretrial hearings. Cahill said Monday his stance had not changed in reaction to Plunkett’s newest arguments.
Moving the trial outside Hennepin County would be a more appropriate remedy to address publicity than recording and broadcasting the proceedings, Cahill told Plunkett.
However, the judge said he would address camera access at trial later and urged both sides to file their opinions on the matter.
Jones and Harrelson, Floyd’s uncle and aunt, said they approve of recording and broadcasting the court proceedings and trial.
“I think the more media we have on this case the more resolve we’ll get, because I don’t know literally what we’re missing here, since 2 to 3 billion people have seen the video of him literally murdered,” Jones said.
Cahill hasn’t decided whether the four cases will be tried together, and asked both sides to file their opinions on the issue.
Lane’s attorney, Earl Gray, told Cahill he planned to file a motion for a hearing to argue that evidence was insufficient to charge his client and that the case should be dismissed.
Gray and Plunkett have previously blamed Chauvin, a 19-year veteran on the police force, for killing Floyd.
Lane was working his fourth day and Kueng his third shift as full-time officers, and the rookies were following Chauvin’s lead, they argued. Lane also asked Chauvin twice about rolling Floyd on his side but was rebuffed, according to Gray and court documents.
The matter and other motions are expected to be addressed at the next hearing for all four defendants on Sept. 11.
Attorneys said that while “voluminous” evidence continues to be produced in the case, more than 8,000 items have already been presented, including about 750 audio and video files and thousands of pages of cellphone data analysis.