The judge presiding over the trial of former Brooklyn Center police officer Kimberly Potter reversed course and ruled Tuesday that the trial will be livestreamed due to COVID-19 concerns.
Hennepin County District Judge Regina Chu emphasized that her decision was not impacted by protesters who gathered Saturday outside a downtown Minneapolis condominium where they believed she lived. One man filmed himself entering the building and standing outside what he thought was the door to Chu's unit. He and the protesters were demanding that Potter's trial be livestreamed. Chu no longer lives in the unit.
Chu initially ruled Aug. 5 against a livestream. The Minnesota Attorney General's Office, which is prosecuting the case, was in favor of a livestream. Potter's attorneys, Earl Gray and Paul Engh, opposed it.
"The recent protest at the presiding judge's home needs to be addressed," Chu wrote in her order. "The protest did not have any impact on the Court's decision, nor should it. The Court's decision to allow A/V coverage was made before the protest and it is based solely on concerns for public health and safety given the ongoing pandemic."
Potter, who is free on $100,000 bond, is scheduled to stand trial Nov. 30 on one count each of first- and second-degree manslaughter for fatally shooting Daunte Wright during an April 11 traffic stop. Her attorneys say they plan to argue that she mistook her handgun for her Taser when she shot Wright.
Chu's ruling comes after a media coalition of local and national news outlets, including the Star Tribune, filed a motion last week challenging her August order. The coalition argued that livestreaming the trial was the only way to meet the constitutional mandate for "meaningful access" to the courts, given the high public and media interest in the case and space limitations in courtrooms imposed by COVID-19 social distancing.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota filed a letter with the court late last week supporting the coalition. The ACLU and coalition also argued that Chu underestimated COVID concerns in her August ruling. The judge wrote Tuesday that public health concerns changed her mind.
"At that time, this Court, like many Minnesotans, anticipated the COVID-19 pandemic would be on the wane by November 30, the trial date," Chu wrote of her August order. "That has not turned out to be the case … Ongoing pandemic concerns are front and center in informing this Court to reconsider its original decision prohibiting A/V coverage. Furthermore, the public and media interest in the case appears to be more substantial than originally thought."
Chu wrote that livestreaming Potter's trial will not violate the former officer's constitutional right to a fair trial. The judge pointed to the trial of Derek Chauvin as an example that "should allay any trepidations about cameras in the courtroom." Chauvin's trial earlier this year was livestreamed due to the pandemic. He was convicted of murdering George Floyd last year.
Chu also ruled that potential jurors or jurors cannot be visually recorded, and that Potter's and Wright's family members cannot be recorded unless they consent.
A second order the judge issued Tuesday provided other guidance for Potter's trial: Jury selection will begin Nov. 30; opening statements are scheduled for Dec. 8. Only people approved by the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office or the county's chief judge can access the 18th floor where the trial will be held.
Three members of Wright's family and of Potter's family will be allowed into the courtroom. Two members of the media will be admitted.
Jurors will be escorted by the sheriff's office and will be referred to by number instead of by name. Witnesses will be sequestered and barred from watching the trial before their testimony.
The courts also continue to observe social distancing protocol and face mask requirements.
Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708