In Court, Derek Chauvin’s Lawyers Say Officials Have Biased the Case

Black Lives Matter

MINNEAPOLIS — The judge overseeing the case against four former Minneapolis police officers in the death of George Floyd told lawyers and local officials on Monday to be careful about what they say, warning that too much publicity could make it difficult to choose an impartial jury.

While stopping short of issuing a formal gag order, Judge Peter A. Cahill of Hennepin County District Court warned that he would consider moving the trial if the parties involved leak information or offer opinions to the news media about the guilt or innocence of the defendants.

“From this day forward, everyone has had their warning,” Judge Cahill said.

Lawyers for the officers cited “multiple inappropriate public comments” from local officials that they said had already prejudiced potential jurors, including a statement last week from the Minneapolis police chief that the killing of Mr. Floyd was murder, not a failure of training. They argued that the court proceedings should be broadcast publicly as a countermeasure.

“The state’s conduct made a fair and unbiased trial extremely unlikely, and the defendants seek video and audio coverage to let a cleansing light shine on these proceedings,” Thomas C. Plunkett, a lawyer for one of the officers, wrote in a motion.

The case, which set off worldwide protests after Mr. Floyd’s death in police custody on May 25, has already generated an enormous amount of publicity; one defense lawyer said it was probably the most famous case in Minnesota history.

Monday’s hearing, which lasted roughly an hour, was the first time all four defendants appeared in court on the same day, although each did so separately. None of the former officers, who were all fired after Mr. Floyd’s killing, have entered pleas.

Derek Chauvin, the 19-year police veteran who pinned his knee to Mr. Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes, faces the most serious charges of second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. He appeared first on Monday, by video conference from prison.

The three other officers, charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder, also appeared one by one. Two of them, out on bail, did so in person, while another appeared from a jail holding cell. None of the defendants said anything more than “Yes, your honor” when asked if they agreed to waive their right to a speedy trial, which is scheduled to begin in the spring.

Two of Mr. Floyd’s relatives, an aunt and an uncle, were in the courtroom and at one point were admonished by the judge for reacting to statements made in court.

ImageSelwyn Jones, George Floyd’s uncle, spoke after a court hearing on Monday. “We just need to fix the system,” he said. “Racism must go.”
Credit…Nicholas Pfosi/Reuters

Speaking to reporters later outside the court, Selwyn Jones, 54, Mr. Floyd’s uncle, said: “I know how the system works. I’ve seen the system my whole life — a black man getting shaded, slighted. When I walk into a courthouse and I see like 15 white people, I’m like, ‘Oh hell, we’re going through this again.’ So, we’ll see how the process ends up.”

He added: “I’m not mad at anyone. We just need to fix the system. Racism must go.”

On Friday, Judge Cahill had banned video and audio coverage of the proceedings, worried it could taint the pool of potential jurors. But at Monday’s hearing, he said the court was studying how to allow cameras to film the upcoming trial.

Lawyers for the officers had filed a motion asking the judge to allow video coverage, arguing that doing so would provide greater public access to the proceedings in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Several news organizations, including The New York Times, had also filed motions for video and audio access to the court.

The arguments over allowing cameras in the courtroom, even as the video of Mr. Floyd’s killing is in wide circulation, underscored what is likely to be one of the most vexing and contested issues as the case inches toward trial: how to seat an impartial jury.

But that remains far off. The judge set the next hearing in the case for Sept. 11, and a trial date of March 8. In the coming months, the court will decide whether to hold four separate trials, or if the four former officers will be tried together.

The demonstrations that followed Mr. Floyd’s killing spread to all 50 states and around the world. Outrage and anguish over another black man dying at the hands of the police quickly grew into a broad examination of racism in all its forms, inciting America’s most sustained period of civil unrest in decades.

Officials in Minneapolis and elsewhere have scrambled to meet the demands of protesters, with proposals to shift funds from police departments to other social programs, institute reforms such as banning chokeholds, and hold officers accountable in court for unlawful uses of force. In Minneapolis, a majority of the City Council has vowed to dismantle the Police Department and reimagine public safety.

On Sunday, Mayor Jacob Frey and the police chief, Medaria Arradondo, announced what they described as the first in a series of police reforms: prohibiting officers involved in incidents from reviewing body camera footage before completing an initial report.

“Requiring officers who may become suspects to complete a police report before reviewing body cam footage will help ensure that investigators, attorneys and jurors receive a transparent account of how an officer remembers the incident — one that hasn’t been influenced by other evidence,” the officials said in a statement.

Credit…Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Mr. Chauvin, 44, is being held on at least $1 million bail in Mr. Floyd’s death. He faces up to 40 years in prison if convicted of the murder and manslaughter charges. Two other defendants, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng, both junior officers, are out on bail. Another former officer, Tou Thao, remains in custody.

Already, lawyers for Mr. Lane and Mr. Kueng have sought to shift the blame to Mr. Chauvin. At an earlier hearing, Mr. Plunkett pointed to Mr. Chauvin’s culpability, saying, “at multiple times, Mr. Kueng and Mr. Lane directed their attention to that 19-year veteran and said, ‘You shouldn’t do this.’” Mr. Thao had met with prosecutors before Mr. Chauvin’s arrest.

Taken together, their actions indicate that the so-called blue wall of silence — officers sticking to the same story, and not speaking out against one another — has already crumbled.

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