Twelve jurors have been seated in the murder trial of Derek Chauvin as the potential for the proceeding to be postponed or relocated because of last week's record $27 million settlement between the city of Minneapolis and George Floyd's family looms overhead.
However, some legal scholars and lawyers said they don't expect Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill to grant defense attorney Eric Nelson's requests for a delay and change of venue given the reach of Floyd's story and the two weeks the court has already invested in selecting jurors. Chauvin's trial started March 8 and is scheduled to last as long as two months.
"I do not think that Judge Cahill is likely to change venue or grant a continuance," said Ted Sampsell-Jones, a professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. "I think he will admonish everyone to be careful about their public statements, and he will continue to question jurors about their knowledge of the settlement and anything else in the media, but given how far along we are, it would be a major disruption to change venue or grant a delay, and I doubt Judge Cahill is willing to go that far."
Nelson motioned Monday to postpone the trial and move it to an unspecified county because he felt the settlement's timing had unfairly tainted the local jury pool. The development occurred a week into Chauvin's trial and came as a surprise, because civil litigation is typically settled after the resolution of a criminal case. Attorney General Keith Ellison's office, which is prosecuting Chauvin, filed a memorandum Thursday opposing a delay.
Cahill said he would decide the matters Friday morning and continued with jury selection. The judge may have inadvertently previewed his decisions Thursday when he said to attorneys at the close of the court day, "8:15 [a.m.] tomorrow for decisions on the motions; we'll start with jurors at 9 [a.m.]."
"To me, this means Judge Cahill will say no to a change of venue and a continuance," said Mitchell Hamline School of Law emeritus professor Joseph Daly, who was watching a livestream of the proceeding. "If he was to grant the motions, why say … pick a jury at 9 a.m.?"
Three jurors were seated Thursday for a total of 12; half are people of color. Jurors include a multi-race woman in her 20s, a multi-race woman in her 40s, two Black men in their 30s, a Black man in his 40s, a Black woman in her 60s, three white women in their 50s, a white woman in her 40s, a white man in his 30s, and a white man in his 20s.
A jury of 14, two of them alternates, will be seated. Opening statements and testimony are scheduled to begin March 29 and last two to four weeks. Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Nelson raised the settlement issue again Thursday afternoon after city officials answered questions about it that morning during one of the routine weekly news conferences the city started holding before the trial.
"I would note that the city of Minneapolis indicated that the timing was of the essence, yet the agreement has not been finalized and will not be finalized for months," Nelson said. "It raises the question of whether the announcement was necessary, regardless of timing. I just wanted to make the court aware that this is an ongoing public discussion that the mayor and city attorney are engaging in."
Special Attorney for the State Steve Schleicher later criticized Nelson's characterization of the briefing as a news conference on the settlement, noting that he had a transcript of the event in his hands and that it was a regular, broad briefing. He said Nelson should address the matter with a formal declaration, rather than "off-the-cuff comments about something someone may have reported in the media."
Cahill patiently heard him out before suddenly cutting in to defend Nelson's right to note the event for the court's official record. The judge grew increasingly irritated and loud as he chastised the prosecution.
"You should not be criticizing each other for noting for the record things that are happening on an emergent matter," Cahill said. "Let's recognize the fact that the state has a lot of lawyers on this case who can sit outside this courtroom and start grinding out things. Mr. Nelson does not have the same level of support. How many lawyers … are working for the state on this case so far, Mr. Schleicher? Is it 10? 12?"
"I don't have that number, Your Honor," Schleicher said.
Relocating the trial would force the court to move to a less racially diverse county to restart jury selection, and a delay would pose financial and logistical hurdles, Sampsell-Jones said. Chauvin is white; Floyd is Black.
Either move is also complicated by the fact that the trial has been livestreamed daily for two weeks by several local and national media outlets, exposing people across the state to news that prospective jurors in Hennepin County had been told to avoid when they were summoned for jury duty three months ago.
"The livestream adds to the unlikelihood that Judge Cahill will grant a change of venue since people all over Minnesota now have had a chance to watch [jury selection]," Daly said. "So, a change of venue will not lessen the potential publicity that already exists in Hennepin County, the state of Minnesota and the United States."
Nelson — and attorneys representing three other former Minneapolis police officers also charged in the case — first requested a change of venue last year. Cahill ruled against it in November, noting that his decision was "preliminary" and subject to change, but that he didn't think any corner of Minnesota was untouched by news of the case. The judge also wrote in a previous ruling that no other county could provide the same level of security as Hennepin County.
Nelson on Monday also requested that seven jurors who were seated before the settlement was announced be recalled this week for further questioning. Cahill questioned them Wednesday and dismissed two because of the settlement's influence. Cahill asked prospective jurors this week whether they heard about civil litigation linked to Floyd, and as the days passed, more pointedly asked if they knew about a "settlement."
"Judge Cahill is certainly troubled by what happened," Sampsell-Jones said. "He is frustrated — and justifiably so — that city leaders risked the integrity of this trial by deciding to hold a news conference in the middle of jury selection. … The city did damage to the state's ability to prosecute this case."
Former Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner said a change of venue isn't completely out of contention.
"If jury selection continues to progress well, as it seems to have done this week, a change of venue is unlikely," Gaertner said Thursday before court ended. "But if [Thursday's] proceedings show that the announcement of the settlement significantly tainted the potential jury pool, more so than was evident [Wednesday], then a change of venue would be in order."
Six of eight prospective jurors questioned Thursday said they had some knowledge of the settlement from news accounts or friends. One woman said she was unable to avoid a conversation about it between her friends. Cahill dismissed her because of her exposure to news, adding "especially the settlement, which you said might have pushed the needle a little bit further" in favor of the prosecution.
Another woman said she could only recall the settlement's dollar amount. She was admitted to the jury.
A man said he heard about the settlement on the radio and thought, "I was shocked … When anything is settled you look at maybe he was guilty." Cahill dismissed him because of his opinions and his safety concerns about serving as a juror.
The other defendants in the case — J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao — are scheduled to be tried in August on charges of aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter.