Prosecutors in the case against the four officers charged in the death of George Floyd requested that the trial be delayed by three months, citing the COVID-19 pandemic and the amount of time needed before enough people are vaccinated and health risks are sufficiently diminished.
March 8 has been the date for the trial to start before Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill of the four now-fired police officers charged in connection with the death of Floyd on May 25 while he was forcibly detained on a south Minneapolis street corner.
In its motion, the prosecution argued that putting off the trial until June 7 "appropriately balances the need to protect public health with the need to ensure that this case is resolved expeditiously."
Waiting until then, the motion continued, "would substantially reduce the risks to trial participants from COVID-19, and thereby reduce the risk that this trial is delayed or disrupted by a COVID-19 outbreak among the trial participants."
Derek Chauvin, Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane are scheduled to be tried together. Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter, and the others are charged with aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter.
Chauvin's attorney, Eric Nelson, earlier this month made a motion for a delay in the trial for what he alleged was the mishandling by prosecutors of how they share evidence with the defense — including burying important information in the midst of irrelevant material, providing duplicates of the same item and turning over thousands of pages of unrelated documents.
Nelson said he has no intention to object to the prosecution seeking a delay in the trial.
Kueng's attorney, Thomas Plunkett, said the prosecution's motion pointing to COVID-19 left him rhetorically puzzled.
"The timing of their motion seems curious to me," Plunkett said. "The pandemic has been around for a while."
Thao's lawyer, Robert Paule, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The prosecution backed its motion with an affidavit filed with the court by Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, a member of President-elect Joe Biden's COVID-19 advisory board.
Emanuel points out on behalf of the motion that "millions of Americans in the general population [are likely to] receive a COVID-19 vaccination between March 2021 and June 2021." As a result, the doctor reasoned, "large public gatherings — including those conducted with proper social distancing and mask protocols — will be substantially safer in June 2021."
The doctor went to contend that the sheer number of participants in the Floyd trial and those actively interested in the proceedings combine to create a health risk that need not be taken by holding firm to a March 8 start date.
"An in-person trial in March 2021 that attracts a large number of people who are indoors for prolonged periods of time with public speaking is likely to create a substantial risk of COVID-19 transmission [and] could even become a super-spreader event," according to Emanuel.
Earl Gray, who is defending Lane, filed an objection to putting off the trial beyond March, contending that "the State and/or its expert, although all powerful, cannot see into the future" in terms of the threat posed by the coronavirus.
The prosecutors in their filing noted that "the high-profile nature of this case — as well as the larger-than-usual number of trial participants, including four Defendants, their counsel, and dozens of witnesses — could mean that many people will congregate in and around the Hennepin County Government Center during trial, thereby posing a higher threat of COVID-19 transmission than the typical criminal trial in Hennepin County."
Peter Wold, a Twin Cities defense attorney who is not involved in this case, said he expects Judge Cahill to grant the prosecution's request.
"With the vaccination process going so slowly, having a trial in March for a month — or however long it's going to take — the odds of one or multiple people coming down with COVID are pretty high," said Wold, "That would be a disaster for everyone."
Wold, who represented former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor, who was convicted of third-degree murder in the 2017 shooting death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, said "it's really hard to imagine" Cahill blocking a delay.
"Who wants to be responsible for pushing a trial forward and then [someone] gets afflicted with COVID?" he said.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482