A Minnesota judge on Monday warned that he’s likely to move the trials of four former police officers charged in George Floyd’s death out of Minneapolis if public officials and attorneys don’t stop talking about the case. Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill spoke as the ex-officers, who were fired after Floyd’s May 25 death, appeared in court for a second pre-trial hearing.
Cahill stopped short of issuing a gag order on attorneys, but he said one is likely if public statements continue. Cahill added that such a situation would also make him likely to grant a change-of-venue motion if one is filed.
“The court is not going to be happy about hearing about the case in three areas: media, evidence and guilt or innocence,” Cahill said.
Derek Chauvin, 44, is charged with second-degree murder and other counts, while Thomas Lane, 37, J. Kueng, 26, and Tou Thao, 34, are charged with aiding and abetting Chauvin. Lane and Kueng, who have posted bail, were seen walking into the courtroom, where no cameras were allowed. Thao, who remains in custody along with Chauvin, appeared in person while Chauvin appeared via video from a detention facility.
Floyd died after Chauvin, who is White, pressed his knee against the handcuffed 46-year-old Black man’s neck for nearly eight minutes. The officers were responding to a call about a man trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill at a nearby store.
Floyd’s death was universally condemned in Minnesota, with elected officials including Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey calling for the officers to be charged. Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said Floyd’s death was “murder.” Disturbing video of Floyd’s death triggered massive nationwide demonstrations protesting systemic racism and police brutality against Black and Brown men and women.
During the hearing Monday, Cahill asked Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank to use his influence to keep public officials silent, warning that if they continued to discuss it publicly, he likely would “have to pull (trials) out of Hennepin County and they need to be aware of that.”
Defense attorney Robert Paule, who is representing Thao, said he is “fighting this battle with one hand” because of the pre-trial publicity, reports the Star-Tribune.
Frank said prosecutors are “just as interested in a fair trial and are acutely aware of the issues” surrounding publicity, the paper reports.
“We have asked people not to talk about this case … we’ve done our best to make the court’s concerns known to them and will continue to do so,” Frank said.
Cahill set a March 8 trial date for the former officers if they are tried together, though he said he expects motions to be filed to separate their trials. The next court date is September 11.
The defendants have not entered pleas. Chauvin’s attorney has not commented publicly on the charges, while Lane’s and Kueng’s attorneys have sought to minimize their clients’ roles and deflect blame to the more senior Chauvin in Floyd’s death. Chauvin remains in custody on $1 million bail and Thao is being held on $750,000 bail.
Cahill also rejected a defense request to reconsider his earlier decision to bar cameras in the courtroom during pretrial proceedings. Defense attorneys asked to allow such coverage, but prosecutors objected. The judge has not ruled on whether to allow cameras for the trial itself, which in Minnesota usually requires the consent of all parties.
Kueng’s attorney, Tom Plunkett, was the attorney asking Cahill to reconsider his ruling on cameras. He asserted that prosecutors and other officials forfeited their right to object to cameras in the courtroom by making public comments that went as far as “saying the defendants are guilty of murder.” He said allowing electronic coverage of pretrial proceedings would actually make it easier to impanel a fair jury by helping to “educate the public that there may be more to the cases than what has been told to them by the state.”
The charges against Chauvin are unintentional second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Second-degree murder carries a maximum penalty of 40 years in prison, third-degree murder carries up to 25 years and manslaughter up to 10.
The other three former officers are charged with aiding and abetting both second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Those charges are legally tantamount to the counts against Chauvin and carry the same penalties.