The Minnesota Court of Appeals will not intervene in the murder case against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin and postpone his March trial in George Floyd's death to the summertime as prosecutors had requested.
The court issued a unanimous ruling Friday stating that prosecutors had not provided enough reasoning to merit its involvement, and dismissed appeals by prosecutors to delay Chauvin's March 8 trial and to hold one trial for Chauvin and three of his former colleagues who are also charged in the case.
"The state has not established a basis for our review of the district court's pretrial orders," wrote Court of Appeals Presiding Judge Tracy Smith. "Because we conclude that these appeals must be dismissed, we express no opinion on the merits of the district court's rulings."
Attorney General Keith Ellison's Office filed appeals in late January asking the Court of Appeals to review rulings issued by Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill that ordered Chauvin to be tried alone next month on charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter.
Prosecutors argued that the COVID-19 pandemic made it unsafe to hold Chauvin's trial in March. They asked the Court of Appeals to hold a hearing so they could argue their case orally, or, to skip a hearing and immediately issue a "writ of prohibition" to stop the trial.
The Court of Appeals rejected the appeals because prosecutors did not show that COVID-19 would have a "critical impact" on their ability to prosecute the case, the Court of Appeals has no "inherent authority" to intervene in the "interests of justice" and issuing a writ of prohibition is "an extreme remedy" limited to cases where the lower court has " 'exceeded its jurisdiction' " and no other options exist, Smith wrote.
Ellison's office could petition the Minnesota Supreme Court to review the Court of Appeals decision. Ellison declined to comment on the possibility.
"We filed the appeal two weeks ago because the State must and will always act in the best interests of justice and the people of Minnesota," Ellison said in a written statement. "Seeking a continuance to protect jurors, court personnel, attorneys and defendants from the lethal COVID-19 virus was the right thing to do and we stand by it. As we have said all along, we will be ready to start the trial whenever the court deems proper."
Chauvin's attorney, Eric Nelson, asked the Court of Appeals not to intervene.
Cahill had ordered one trial for Chauvin and a second trial in August for his three former colleagues — J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao — because the county's largest courtroom cannot accommodate all four defendants and their attorneys at once due to COVID-19 safety protocols. Kueng, Lane and Thao are charged with aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter.
Cahill twice rejected prosecutors' motions to delay the March trial and to hold one trial for all four defendants in the summer, prompting the appeal to the higher court. Cahill has presided over all four cases and will preside at both trials.
Such rulings by the trial judge are discretionary, the Court of Appeals wrote.
"We are not persuaded that these discretionary rulings present the type of legal issues that should be reviewed by way of a petition for a writ of prohibition, especially in light of the supreme court's guidance about prosecution pretrial appeals being disfavored and a showing of critical impact being required to obtain appellate review," Smith wrote. "Moreover, the state has not identified any case establishing that a petition for writ of prohibition is the 'proper procedure' for challenging a pretrial order."
Smith acknowledged the importance of public health in light of the pandemic, but noted that the courts have implemented "significant, tested safeguards" that are in place as hearings and trials continue in the state court system.
The prosecution's move was unusual, as the Court of Appeals is designed mainly to review complaints from defendants about the trial process after they have been convicted. Legal scholars said the Court of Appeals generally does not like to intervene before a case has gone to trial.
"The Court of Appeals is generally reluctant to second-guess decisions by a trial judge, things like scheduling of the trial," said Richard Frase, a University of Minnesota law professor and co-director of the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice. "They also just don't want a constant stream of appeals questioning the trial judge. Trial judges have a lot of discretion to make decisions."
Joseph Daly, emeritus professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, felt that prosecutors made a convincing argument to delay the trial because of the pandemic, but said Friday's ruling is consistent with the higher court's role.
"[Trial] judges are like a referee in a basketball game, 'Let's get going,' " Daly said. "They don't want to interfere with what judges do."
Frase and Daly said chances are low that the state Supreme Court would intervene.
"This is atypical … and if you try at the last minute to get them to intervene, it's going to annoy the trial judge, and you don't want to annoy the trial judge," Frase said.
All four defendants, who were fired, are out on bond.
Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708