A Hennepin County judge on Friday rejected an unusual request to allow cameras in the courtroom filed by attorneys representing four former Minneapolis officers charged in the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd.
Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill noted that Minnesota court rules require both the defense and prosecution to agree in order to allow cameras at pretrial hearings. Prosecutors objected to the defense’s motion, he wrote in his order denying camera access. “Given that this is a case that has already received substantial pretrial media coverage, the Court finds that audio or video coverage of the pretrial hearings in this case would not only violate [Minnesota court rules], but would risk tainting a potential Hennepin County jury pool,” Cahill wrote.
Attorneys representing Derek Chauvin, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao filed a motion late Thursday, which was made public Friday, granting permission to record both pretrial and trial proceedings regardless of objections from the prosecution.
“The Defendants argue that this relief is necessary to provide the Defendants with a fair trial in light of the State’s and other governmental actors multiple inappropriate comments and to assure an open hearing in light of the ongoing pandemic,” wrote Kueng’s attorney, Thomas Plunkett, who filed the motion on behalf of the other defendants.
Cahill’s order said camera access at trial will be addressed at a later date.
The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office deferred comment to Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office, which is leading the prosecution.
Ellison said he supports a public trial but warned that cameras would cause more problems in the Floyd case.
“Cameras could alter the way the lawyers present evidence,” he said in a written statement. “Cameras in the courtroom could subject the participants in the trial to heightened media scrutiny and thereby be distracting to conducting the trial.”
The chances of “creating more sensation than understanding” was “very high,” Ellison said.
Several local media outlets, including the Star Tribune, and national outlets such as the New York Times and Court TV have filed requests with the court to record the pretrial proceedings.
The four officers are due in court Monday for their second appearance on charges ranging from second-degree murder to aiding and abetting murder.
Plunkett argued that it is necessary to record and broadcast the proceedings because state and local officials, including Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, have publicly criticized the former officers’ actions.
He also said “unethical ‘leaks’ ” of information about the cases have compromised objectivity about the cases.
“Specifically, this relief is necessary to blunt the effects of the increasing and repeated media attacks from the various officials who have breached their duty to the community,” said Plunkett’s motion. “These State comments have crescendoed to an extraordinary volume this week with the Chief pronouncing that ‘[w]hat happened to Mr. Floyd was murder.’ The State’s conduct has made a fair and unbiased trial extremely unlikely and the Defendants seek video and audio coverage to let a cleansing light shine on these proceedings. Doing otherwise allows these public officials to geld the Constitution.”
Lane’s attorney, Earl Gray, said in an interview Friday that Ellison and Arradondo have overstepped their bounds.
“The most unethical statements were made by Ellison saying they’re guilty of murder and the police chief going on national TV and saying that,” Gray said. “They know better. It seems like everybody wants these guys convicted before trial.”
Ellison has said in interviews that he’s confident jurors will convict the former officers. Arradondo spoke about the case on the TV show “60 Minutes” and issued a written statement Monday saying, “I agree with Attorney General Ellison: what happened to Mr. Floyd was murder.”
Plunkett and Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, declined to comment. Thao’s attorney, Robert Paule, did not return messages seeking comment.
Plunkett cited the constitutional right to a fair and public trial in arguing for cameras in the courtroom. He noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has restricted courtroom access, and that broadcasting the proceedings would assure the right to a public trial.
The state courts have taken several measures to prevent COVID-19 infections at its facilities, including limiting the number of media personnel and public allowed into a courtroom.
Defense attorney Robert Richman, who is not involved in the cases, said camera access could help the defense attorneys present another narrative about Floyd’s death, which was recorded by a bystander and seen around the world.
“Given the weight of negative publicity that has already sort of shaped public perception, I think that it is important for the defense to start to make their defense known so that they don’t have quite as much of an uphill battle when they start out on the first day of trial,” Richman said. “It’s something of a high-risk strategy, because typically publicity does not work well for the defense, but in a case like this it’s not clear to me there’s anything to lose.”
Cameras have been allowed at sentencings after a conviction per a judge’s discretion.
While media outlets can request camera access at any court hearing, it’s unheard of in Minnesota for a judge to approve such requests for pretrial hearings in criminal cases, or for trial.
“Anything that happens in the courtroom is accurate,” Gray said. “We’re not afraid of that. It’s pretrial prejudicial publicity, like the chief’s statement, [that concerns us].”
Ben Crump, an attorney representing Floyd’s survivors, told the Star Tribune that the Floyd family was informed this week that a trial in the case will be scheduled for March 8, with a hearing on pretrial motions on Sept. 11.
The trial schedule could be made official at a Monday court hearing in Hennepin County, though trial schedules often get delayed. State prosecutors are expected to seek to try all four former officers charged in the case in one trial, a move one or more of the defense attorneys might oppose.
The tentative trial schedule was shared during a private meeting Tuesday in Texas between the family and Ellison and U.S. Attorney Erica MacDonald. Ellison’s office is leading the state’s criminal prosecution in conjunction with the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, while MacDonald’s office is conducting a federal civil rights probe.
Crump said the meeting gave the family “a great sense of comfort knowing that they are going to zealously prosecute this case” and that it was a “priority for them to make sure they get justice for George Floyd’s family and also for the community, so the community can have faith in the system.”
The family would like to see Chauvin charged with the more serious crime of first-degree murder. Ellison outlined the burden of proving that charge to the family but said he would not rule out new charges if the evidence warrants them.
Crump said MacDonald compared the federal probe to the case of Walter Scott, a South Carolina black man killed in 2015 by a white police officer who fired on him as he ran away. A state court jury acquitted the officer, but federal prosecutors later won a conviction and he was sentenced in 2017 to 20 years in prison.
A spokeswoman acknowledged that MacDonald requested the private meeting with Floyd’s family and that she had “discussed the process and procedure the federal civil rights investigation.” The investigation is ongoing and remains a “top priority” for the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department, the spokeswoman said.