A Hennepin County judge is sticking with his historic decision to livestream the trial of four former Minneapolis police officers charged in the death of George Floyd due to immense global interest in the case and limited courthouse space, according to an order filed Friday.
Judge Peter Cahill dismissed concerns by state prosecutors, who argued last month that recording audio and visuals of the trial would violate court rules and scare away potential witnesses. Attorney General Keith Ellison's office, which is leading the prosecution, asked that Cahill rescind his previous ruling or consider narrowing the scope of outside access.
Cahill declined to modify his original ruling issued Nov. 4, writing that although he is granting more extensive video coverage than allowed in court rules, he is permitted to modify the rules "in any case to prevent manifest injustice."
"Without question, deprivation of the constitutional rights that are the hallmarks of a public criminal trial would be a 'manifest injustice,' " Cahill wrote. "The only real issue then, is whether there is a reasonable alternative to televising the trial that would vindicate the defendants' Sixth Amendment rights and the First Amendment rights of the public and the press. … The Court concludes that televising the trial is the only reasonable and meaningful method to safeguard the Sixth and First Amendment rights implicated in these cases."
A coalition of local and national media companies, including the Star Tribune, filed a memorandum opposing the prosecutors' request, saying that livestreaming is the only option to guarantee constitutional rights to a public trial because the court's closed-circuit technology offers low-quality video and sound. Attorneys for three of the four defendants in the case — former Minneapolis police officers Derek Chauvin, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao — also filed memorandums Monday opposing the prosecution's proposal. The three attorneys and Earl Gray, who represents former officer Thomas Lane, previously filed motions requesting cameras in the courtroom.
Cahill again invoked the size of the courtrooms and "unique and unprecedented situation" brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the Hennepin County Government Center's largest courtrooms has been remodeled to adhere to social distancing requirements. As a result, the public gallery has been removed, and only one seat in the courtroom remains that is not used by a trial participant. If the trial is televised, a technician will occupy the chair.
"It would be farcical to say that this arrangement, by itself, provides meaningful access to the public or the press or vindicates the defendants' right to a public trial," Cahill wrote.
Cahill backed the media coalition's claims that overflow courtrooms are deficient for a public trial, including bad audio and video, and "the likelihood of hundreds (if not thousands) of members of the public and press assembling at the Hennepin County Government Center every day" throughout the trial, complicating social distancing efforts. He also speculated on how many overflow courtrooms would be necessary to accommodate the public.
"Two? Three? Twenty? Should the Fourth Judicial District pause all courtroom activity for the months of March and April 2021 to allow every courtroom in the Hennepin County Government Center to be used as courtrooms for this trial?" Cahill wrote. "At what point does this become televising the trial, but just to a select and limited group?"
Liz Sawyer • 612-673-4648