As the COVID-19 omicron wave hammers Minnesota, the federal judge presiding over the civil rights case of three former Minneapolis police officers said Tuesday he fears an outbreak could sicken jurors and alternatives and upend the upcoming trial.
In St. Paul's federal courthouse, U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson also said the case is "getting out of proportion" — specifically calling out the prosecution's list of 48 potential witnesses — and asked attorneys on both sides to move at a faster clip to avoid the chances of the virus spreading.
"Move the case along and get it tried in a shorter time," Magnuson told them. "The longer we are in the courtroom, the more exposure we have to COVID. And if we get to that point and we don't have 12 people sitting here, you know what happens. We all go home."
Jury selection is scheduled to begin Jan. 20 in the trial of Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane, all facing charges of abusing the "color of the law" to deprive George Floyd of his civil rights in his death May 25, 2020.
The fourth defendant, Derek Chauvin, awaits sentencing after pleading guilty to federal charges in December. Chauvin was convicted of murder and manslaughter in a separate trial in state court in 2021.
The hearing Tuesday dealt with motion rulings and other logistics before the trial and was the first time in the federal case that the judge, prosecutors, the three defendants and their lawyers have met in person.
"None of us have ever been involved in anything of this nature before," Magnuson told them, underscoring the arduous weeks that lay ahead. Besides the virus threat, Magnuson said he feared for the security of the court proceedings and warned vaguely against the threat of "outside pressures" that could interfere with the case.
"The rule of law must prevail," he said. "We have got to have fair, impartial juries that impartially decide cases. Period."
The trial will take place in Magnuson's courtroom in the Warren E. Burger Federal Building in downtown St. Paul The building has been reinforced with metal perimeter fencing over the past week, and on Tuesday, St. Paul officials said several roads will be closed and parking limited in the area surrounding the courthouse.
"There has been a huge amount of taxpayer dollars invested in this case already," Magnuson said.
The judge ruled on several motions Tuesday with little discussion. He said a 10-year-old witness will not be allowed to testify, a reference to Judeah Reynolds. The cousin of Daniella Frazier, who recorded on her cellphone Floyd's fatal encounter with police on a Minneapolis street corner , testified in the state's trial against Chauvin last year of the trauma she endured as a witness to the incident.
Magnuson ruled that witnesses may only testify in uniform if they're appearing in their "official function." That means Minneapolis firefighter Genevieve Hansen will not be allowed to wear her uniform, he said. Testifying in full uniform at Chauvin's state trial last summer, Hansen said she feared for Floyd's life and that he needed emergency medical attention. Diverging from the state's judge, Magnuson said it would be "unfair" to allow her to wear her uniform this time because she was off-duty when she witnessed the encounter.
Magnuson said there were "way too many witnesses in this case." Assistant U.S. Attorney LeeAnn Bell said prosecutors did not plan to call all 48 people on their list.
Magnuson, and notices from the court over the past week, forecast a starkly different trial than Chauvin's 2021 state trial watched by millions. In that trial, the judge allowed the proceedings to be livestreamed and broadcast across the world.
For the upcoming trial, the public will learn about developments from a small group of reporters watching from inside the courthouse—and most of them will not be allowed in the courtroom. Magnuson said he will allow a few journalists inside each day, and the public and the rest of the media who wish to watch will be relegated to doing so through a video feed playing in other rooms inside the building.
Magnuson said the trial proceedings will start around 9:30 to 10 a.m. every day and end by 5 p.m. He said he expects the 12 jurors and six alternates to be selected in two days — far faster than the two weeks needed to pick Chauvin's jury — so opening statements will begin Jan. 24.
The three former officers also await a March trial in Hennepin County District Court on charges of aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter in Floyd's death. They are scheduled for a joint trial in March, although both sides have asked for a continuance, citing the federal trial.
On Tuesday, Hennepin District Judge Peter Cahill reiterated his order that the state trial be livestreamed when he denied a defense request asking for reconsideration.
"The joint trial of these defendants, as was the case with the trial of their co-defendant Derek Chauvin, can be expected to receive ubiquitous media coverage given the vast public interest whether or not the joint trial is livestreamed," Cahill wrote.
"That is simply the nature of highly publicized trials in which the public and media have an intense interest."