A coalition of local and national media companies is opposing a request by prosecutors in the George Floyd case to limit trial access to closed-circuit TV viewable only in the courthouse.
The coalition's memorandum filed Monday asks Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill to proceed with his plan to livestream the proceedings outside of the courthouse in order to provide courtroom access mandated by the constitution while keeping people safe from COVID-19.
The filing is in response to a Nov. 25 motion filed by Attorney General Keith Ellison's office that asked Cahill to instead broadcast the trial via closed-circuit TV in an overflow courtroom with limited seats.
Cahill issued an unprecedented order on Nov. 4 allowing camera access and livestreaming because the pandemic would allow little, if any room, for the public or media to observe from inside the trial courtroom.
"No court has ever faced the challenges this Court is facing and no court has ever tried to address those challenges as this Court proposes," said the coalition's memorandum. "Given the circumstances, the Court's accommodation is what the Constitution requires."
The coalition is comprised of the Star Tribune, Minnesota Public Radio, The Associated Press, all four local TV affiliates and their parent companies, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Company, Court TV, the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information and the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law.
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 Court's Order strikes a reasonable balance among the interests of the defendants, the state and the public by allowing audio and video coverage of the complete trial," wrote Kueng's attorney, Thomas Plunkett. "The sky is not falling."
The three attorneys and Earl Gray, who represents former officer Thomas Lane, previously filed motions requesting cameras in the courtroom. Gray has not responded to the prosecution's stance.
The coalition argued 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, and because a limited number of people would be allowed into an overflow courtroom to view the proceedings.
It also argued that prosecutors' concern that a livestream would make witnesses reluctant to testify was unfounded, because several witnesses have already spoken to the media.
" … The State does not identify a single witness who has expressed any concern about testifying in front of a camera, much less articulated the nature of that concern…," the coalition wrote. " … The State provides only the sort of vague and generalized arguments that courts routinely reject when considering whether to close the courtroom."
Several witnesses and members of Floyd's family have given interviews to the media, including a 9-year-old girl, Judeah Reynolds, who is writing a children's book about her experience, and Darnella Frazier, a teenager who recorded Floyd's death, who told the Star Tribune the day after Floyd's death that "the world needed to see what I was seeing."
Witnesses "should not be forced to sacrifice their privacy or suffer possible threats of intimidation when they perform their civic duty and testify," said last month's motion by Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank and Special Attorney for the state Neal Katyal. "The risks of broadcasting witness testimony are particularly acute where, as here, live video and audio coverage may be intimidating to some witnesses and make it less likely that they will testify, potentially interfering with a fair trial."
If Cahill rejects close-circuit TV, prosecutors argued, he should only allow the recording of attorneys' opening statements and closing arguments, and protect witnesses by allowing them to opt out of visual or audio recording.
Prosecutors argued that the judge's order violated court Rule 4.02, which requires both the defense and prosecution to consent in order to record a trial.
Defense attorneys and the media coalition argued that the unprecedented nature of the case and pandemic necessitated unusual measures to ensure "meaningful" access. It would not open the door to livestreaming all future cases, they said.
"Confining a limited number of people into one or several enclosed rooms, while frustrating throngs of others who will not be permitted to enter, will not alleviate the health risks posed by the situation — rather, it will surely exacerbate them," wrote Chauvin's attorney, Eric Nelson.
The defendants are scheduled to be tried together on March 8. Two defense teams have asked to postpone the trial, with one proposing a July 5 trial date.
Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708