The attorney for fired Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin asked a judge Monday to postpone and move his murder trial to another city, saying Friday's highly publicized $27 million settlement between the city of Minneapolis and George Floyd's family unfairly taints prospective jurors and violates his client's constitutional right to a fair trial.
Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill did not immediately rule on the motions, and said he would take them under advisement as the trial seemed primed to coast through jury selection and toward testimony after seven jurors were seated last week and an appellate court matter was settled.
Defense attorney Eric Nelson expressed concern Monday that jurors chosen last week and prospective jurors waiting to be questioned could be prejudiced by the unanimously approved settlement. The City Council signed off on the settlement as proceedings moved along Friday and announced it at a widely publicized and livestreamed news conference alongside Floyd's family members and legal team.
"I am gravely concerned with the news that broke on Friday related to the civil settlement in this case," Nelson said to the judge. "The fact that this came in the exact middle of jury selection is perplexing to me, your honor."
He said the settlement's timing was "very suspicious" and that council members used "very well-designed terminology" in their public remarks that could influence jurors.
Prosecutor Steve Schleicher argued for jury selection to continue uninterrupted.
"All I can say to the court is there are some things the state of Minnesota and this prosecution team can control, and there are some things it cannot control," he said. " … We cannot and do not control the Minneapolis City Council, and we certainly cannot and do not control the news cycle."
Schleicher opposed Nelson's motion to delay the trial despite the prosecution's three failed attempts to persuade Cahill and the Court of Appeals to postpone the trial until the summertime due to COVID-19 concerns.
Cahill agreed the settlement's timing was troubling. No city officials have addressed the issue publicly.
"You would agree it's unfortunate, wouldn't you," Cahill asked Schleicher, "that we have this reported all over the media when we're in the midst of jury selection?"
"I don't know which way it cuts," Schleicher said.
"The problem is that it cuts," Cahill said. "I think the defense has a legitimate concern, and even the state has a concern."
The judge continued: "I wish city officials would stop talking about this case so much. At the same time, I don't find any evil intent that they were trying to tamper with this case. … The timing is not related to this case."
Cahill intends to bring back the seven jurors chosen last week so they can be questioned about what they heard about the settlement and whether it would affect their ability to be impartial.
To underscore his point, Nelson noted that the City Council waited until after jurors convicted former Minneapolis officer Mohamed Noor in 2019 of fatally shooting Justine Ruszczyk Damond before announcing a $20 million settlement with her family. He also remarked that Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office is leading the prosecution, is the father of Minneapolis City Council Member Jeremiah Ellison.
"We've got a mayor [Jacob Frey] who's a lawyer by trade — he should know better — and obviously Mr. Ellison's son is a City Council member," Nelson said. "I'm not accusing Mr. Ellison of anything, but it is profoundly disturbing to the defense. The goal of this system is to provide a fair trial, and this is not fair."
Nelson asked the judge for extra peremptory strikes, which can be used to dismiss prospective jurors without explanation, and to immediately sequester jurors upon their selection. Cahill denied the extra strikes. Nelson has used nine of 15 peremptory strikes by the end of Monday. Prosecutors have used five of their nine strikes.
After a brief morning break, Attorney General Ellison returned to the courtroom and said something along the lines of, "Is there anything else someone would like to not accuse me of?" in reference to Nelson's comments.
Ellison's spokesman, John Stiles, said the attorney general had no comment about the statement. Jeremiah Ellison did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Nelson's concerns about news of the settlement tainting prospective jurors were realized when the day's first candidate, a woman, said she "gasped" when she heard of the $27 million payout and could not be impartial. She was promptly dismissed. However, the other seven people questioned Monday did not mention seeing news of the settlement.
Two jurors were chosen Monday, bringing the total to nine. The jury is nearly half people of color and half white, consisting of: a white man in his 20s, a multiracial woman in her 20s, two white men in their 30s, two Black men in their 30s, one Hispanic man in his 20s and two white women in their 50s.
The eighth juror seated is a Black man in his 30s who works in banking and coaches youth sports. He said he saw the bystander viral video of Floyd's May 25 arrest.
"I don't think [Chauvin] had any intention of harming anybody, but somebody did die," he said, adding somebody could have intervened and stopped him.
He pledged he could be objective. He also said he was once arrested for a driving offense and the police acted professionally, that he witnessed Minneapolis police use excessive force on a person downtown and that he knows a few officers at his gym who are "great guys."
Nelson asked whether he ended up voting not guilty, "Would you be able to tell the kids you coach and explain why you did?" The man said he could.
The ninth juror selected is a white woman in her 50s who lives outside Minneapolis, works as an executive assistant in a clinical health care setting and is a single mother.
She has viewed bystander video of Floyd's arrest, but wrote in her questionnaire, "I couldn't watch it in full because it was too disturbing to me."
However, she said, "I'm not in a position to change the law. I'm in a position to uphold the law. … He's innocent until we can prove otherwise."
She said she has a "somewhat negative" opinion of Black Lives Matter and a "negative" opinion of the protests that followed Floyd's death because the community took a "beating" from them. She reported having a "somewhat negative" opinion of Chauvin.
"I got the impression he didn't care about George Floyd," she said.
Many jury candidates Monday echoed those called in last week and recalled watching parts of the bystander video, consuming news at the time and seeing headlines about the upcoming trial. Prospective jurors received a lengthy questionnaire in the mail about three months ago and were asked to avoid news coverage in the interim.
A 75-year-old man was dismissed by the judge after telling the court, "I didn't even see the whole video. I saw as much as I could take of the video, and I was appalled by what I saw, and that feeling continues to be with me."
Another man said he is an educator who works with students of color.
"I'd be a horrible candidate as a juror," he said. "I couldn't go back and look at my students and my colleagues. … I am almost sick to my stomach right now."
Star Tribune staff writers Liz Navratil and Rochelle Olson contributed to this report.