Parties’ Latest Reactions to Issues for Trial in George Floyd Criminal Cases

On November 5, the Hennepin County District Court issued five significant orders regarding the joint criminal trial of Derek Chauvin, Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao over the killing of George Floyd. These orders (1) granted the State’s motion for a joint trial of the four defendants; (2) preliminarily denied the defendants’ motions for change of venue; (3) provided for  juror anonymity and sequestration; (4) allowed audio and video coverage of the trial; and (5) narrowed its previous order regarding four members of the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office’s participation in the cases.[1]

On November 16, various motions and briefs were submitted objecting to the recent orders for a joint trial and allowing audio and video coverage of the trial as well as the pending motions for allowance of evidence of prior incidents of the four defendants and of Mr. Floyd. The most significant of these papers, in this blogger’s judgment, was Thomas Lane’s motion for reconsideration of the order for a joint trial of the four defendants, which, therefore, will be discussed first.

Lane’s Motion To Reconsider Joinder for Trial[2]

Lane argued that the order for joinder is premature as it does not consider the prejudice that will be caused by admission of evidence of prior incidents involving the other three defendants, none of which involved Lane.

Most significantly, Lane asserted that his  defense will be antagonistic to Chauvin in that he will be “pointing the finger” at Chauvin and that if Lane had known of Chauvin’s prior incidents, Lane would have acted differently. (Emphasis added.) (This is believed to be the first time that any of the defendants has pointed the finger at Chauvin, the principal actor in the death of Floyd.)

Moreover, said Lane’s attorney, the Court’s opinion regarding aiding and abetting liability was erroneous since it was inconsistent with a 2014 opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court, which, among other things, said such liability requires the defendant to have “advance knowledge that a crime is being committed.” (Emphasis added.)[3]

Finally, according to Lane’s attorney, a recently disclosed FBI report about its July 8th interview of Hennepin County Medical Examiner, Dr. Andrew Baker, contains significant points helpful to Lane and the other defendants.. Here are this blogger’s extracts of that report with emphasis on the points helpful to the defendants.

  • Baker’s office’s press release about its examination of Floyd’s body apparently mentioned ”cardiopulmonary arrest,” which “for a lay person would be the stopping of the heart and lungs. Other factors that contributed to Floyd’s cardiopulmonary arrest included hypertension, the presence of fentanyl and methamphetamine, as well as arteriosclerotic heart disease.”(P. 038777) (Emphasis added.)
  • “The term ‘complicating’ in the case title was a medical term meaning occurring after, during, or as a result of.” (P. 03877)
  • Baker defined the mechanism of death as Floyd’s heart and lungs stopping due to the combined effects of his health problems as well as the exertion involved in Floyd’s interaction with police prior to being on the groun” (Pp. 038777-78.) (Emphasis added.)
  • There was no evidence that Floyd’s airway was literally blocked shut. When viewing the body camera footage, the pressure did not appear to be directly over Floyd’s airway. Floyd would have been unable to speak if pressure was directly over his airway.” (P. 03778.) (Emphasis added.)
  • Officer Chauvin’s positioning on Floyd’s body does not fit anatomically with occluding Floyd’s airway.” (P. 038778.) (Emphasis added.)
  • There was no anatomic evidence of injury to Floyd’s neck but that does not rule out that pressure was applied by Chauvin.” (P. 038778.) (Emphasis added.)
  • The absence of petechiae weighs against strangulation.” (P. 038778.) (Emphasis added.)
  • Baker noted that that Floyd had no injury to . . .[his lower buttocks or upper end of Floyd’s thigh which were being held by Kueng].” (P. 038778) (Emphasis added.)
  • Baker noted that there was no relation to Floyd’s cause of death by Lane’s position [on Floyd’s feet].” (P. 038778.) (Emphasis added.)
  • “The struggle between officers and Floyd weighed into Baker’s opinion because physical exertion increases heart rate, releases adrenaline, and increases respiratory rate as well as cardiac demand. All of these things increased the likelihood of a bad outcome.” (P. 038778.)
  • Baker had no opinion on when Floyd became critical or near death.” (P. 038780.) (Emphasis added.)
  • Baker did not believe that the prone position was any more dangerous than other positions based on an article or journal he had read. “ (P. 038780.) (Emphasis added.)
  • Baker could not provide an answer on a ‘but for’ cause [of death]. (P. 038781.) (Emphasis added.)
  • Absent suspicious circumstances, if Floyd had been found dead in his bed with the level of fentanyl in his blood that was present for this autopsy, it may be classified aa fentanyl fatality due to the level of fentanyl.” (P. 039781.) (Emphasis added.)
  • When a death was labeled a homicide, it was not a legal ruling being made. The label was classified as such for public health reasons.” (P. 0388782.) (Emphasis added.)

Parties’ Battle Over Evidence of Defendants’ Prior Incidents[4]

 The State previously had argued for admission of evidence of eight separate incidents involving Chauvin’s actions in the course of his duties as a Minneapolis Police Officer. On November 16 the State submitted a supplemental argument in support of such evidence in light of its obtaining the body worn camera videos for one of those incidents that are relevant to show modus operandi, intent and lack of mistake and rebut any defense of reasonable use of force and that their probative value outweighs any potential unfair prejudice.

Lane’s objection to such evidence was just discussed.

In addition,  Chauvin’s attorney argued that these incidents are inadmissible to show his intent in the Floyd case or his alleged knowledge of the need to move Floyd from the prone position or a common scheme or plan or modus operandi and that evidence of such incidents is cumulative and unfairly prejudicial.

State’s Objection to Evidence of  Floyd’s Prior Incident with Minneapolis Police[5]

All Defendants intend to offer evidence of George Floyd’s May 6, 2019, incident with the Minneapolis Police Department even though the Court at the September 11, 2020, hearing held that such evidence was inadmissible. The State said the Court’s prior decision was correct and that the defendants intend to offer this evidence at trial was for the improper purpose of attacking Floyd’s character and suggesting he had a propensity to commit crimes or should be punished for his prior actions; that the prior incident does not show Floyd’s common scheme or plan in the incident that led to his death; that his state of mind in the prior incident is irrelevant; that the unfair prejudice of evidence of that prior incident far outweighs its probative value and that the defendants’ other arguments for such evidence are unpersuasive.

State’s Objection to Audio and Video Trial Coverage[6]

The State asked the Court for reconsideration of its order for audio and video coverage of the trial. The motion provided no reasons for that motion other than its previous objection to such coverage under Minnesota Rule of Criminal Procedure 4.02(d) and a brief to be filed on or before November 30.

A StarTribune editorial, however, supported this court order. It said, “It is in the best interest of trial participants and the public for this high-profile trial to be as accessible as possible. . . . [Judge] Cahill’s ruling is well-reasoned and fair.”

Reactions

An important reason for the Court’s November 5th order for a joint trial of the four defendants was there was no indication at that stage of the proceedings “that any of the Defendants is likely to be prejudiced by joinder because their defenses are not antagonistic but instead are mutually supportive.” Now, however, Defendant Lane has stated that his  defense will be antagonistic to Chauvin in that Lane will be “pointing the finger” at Chauvin and that if Lane had known of Chauvin’s prior incidents, Lane would have acted differently. This latest statement, therefore, is a serious challenge to the wisdom of a joint trial.

In addition, Lane’s disclosure of the FBI memorandum of its interview of the Hennepin County Medical Examiner, assuming it accurately reflects what the Examiner said, provides boosters for the defense and problems for the prosecution.

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[1] Court’s Orders Regarding Criminal Trial of Defendants in George Floyd Killing, dwkcommentaries.com (Nov. 5, 2020).

[2]  Defendant’s [Lane’s] Objection to the State’s Spreigl Notice and Motion to Reconsider the Court’s Order for Joinder, State v. Lane, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12951 (Nov. 16, 2020); Exhibit A [FBI Memorandum], Lane Objection to Spreigl and Motion to Reconsider Joinder Order,  State v. Lane, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12951 (Nov. 16, 2020).

[3]  This case was Rosemond v. United States, 572 U.S. 64 (2014), which requires close analysis.

[4]  State’s Supplemental Memorandum of Law in Support of Other Evidence, State v. Chauvin, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12646 Nov. 16, 2020); Defendant’s [Chauvin’s] Objection to State’s Proposed Introduction of Spreigl Evidence, State v. Chauvin, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12646 Nov. 16, 2020); Defendant’s [Kueng’s]Objection to the State’s 404(b) Evidence, State v. Kueng, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12953 Nov. 16, 2020); Defendant’s [Thao’s] Memorandum in Opposition to State’s Motion for Spreigl Evidence Against Mr. Thao, State v. Thao, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12949 Nov. 16, 2020); Defendant’s [Lane’s] Objection to the State’s Spreigl Notice and Motion to Reconsider the Court’s Order for Joinder, State v. Lane, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12951 (Nov. 16, 2020); Jany, Seeking to show pattern of excessive force by Chauvin, prosecutors cite incident with 14-year-old boy who couldn’t breathe, StarTribune (Nov. 17, 2020);Bailey, Former Minneapolis police officer charged in George Floyd’s death seeks to bar evidence of past neck and body restraints, Wash. Post (Nov. 17, 2020).

[5] State’s Response Opposing Defendants’ Motions To Admit Spreigl Evidence, State v. Chauvin, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12646 Nov. 16, 2020).

[6] State’s Motion for Reconsideration, State v. Chauvin, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12646 Nov. 16, 2020) State asks judge to reconsider permission for audio, video coverage of officers’ trial in George Floyd Killing, StarTribune (Nov. 16, 2020); Editorial, A victory for courtroom access in George Floyd case, StarTribune (Nov. 17, 2020).

Court’s Orders Regarding Criminal Trial of Defendants in George Floyd Killing

On November 5, Hennepin County District Court Judge Peter Cahill issued five significant orders relating to the trial in the criminal cases against the four former Minneapolis policemen involved in the killing of George Floyd: Derek Chauvin, Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao. [1]

These orders (1) granted the State’s motion for a joint trial of the four defendants; 2) preliminarily denied the defendants’ motions for change of venue; (3) provided for  juror anonymity and sequestration; (4) allowed audio and video coverage of the trial; and (5) narrowed its previous order regarding four members of the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office’s participation in the cases.

These five orders will be reviewed below.

                  Joint Trial of the Four Defendants[2]

The 51-page Order and Memorandum Opinion sets forth the Factual Background and then Discussion of the four-factor test for joinder established by the Minnesota Rules of Criminal Procedure and Minnesota case law. The following is the Court’s Summary of that detailed discussion (pp. 4-5).

“The first factor weighs strongly in favor of joinder because of the similarity of the charges and evidence against all four Defendants.” Indeed, “the critical evidence at trial”—body-cam videos of three of the defendants and cell-phone video of a bystander; Minneapolis Police Department Policies and Procedures and Training Manuals; autopsy reports and medical and forensic testimony about the circumstances and causes of Floyd’s death; and eyewitness testimony—”will be the same for all four Defendants.”

“The second factor slightly favors joinder in view of the impact of conducting four separate trials . . . would have on eyewitnesses if . .. [they] were forced to relive the events of May 25, 2020, by testifying to the same events at multiple trials,” especially since one of these witnesses is a minor.

“The third factor also strongly favors joinder because there is no indication at this stage of the proceedings that any of the Defendants is likely to be prejudiced by joinder because their defenses are not antagonistic but instead are mutually supportive.”

The “fourth factor also strongly favors joinder because conducting four separate trials arising from the same underlying incident and involving the same evidence and the same witnesses would result in unwarranted delay and impose unnecessary burdens on the State, the court, and the witnesses. Moreover, in wake of the unprecedented . . . scope of the publicity [about these cases] . . . if trials were to proceed separately for each Defendant, trial-related publicity surrounding the first trial (and succeeding trials) could potentially compound the difficulty of selecting a fair and impartial jury in all subsequent trials. Thus, the interests of justice also warrant joinder.”

Preliminary Denial of Change of Venue[3]

 The Court considered two factors in preliminarily deny the Defendants’ motions to change venue and transfer the case from Hennepin County to another district court in Minnesota: prejudicial publicity and safety concerns of the defendants and their attorneys.

With respect to the first factor, the Court took “judicial notice that the death of George Floyd has generated thousands of articles, reports and commentary in Minnesota, the entire United States, and internationally.” (n. 10.) As a result, “no corner of the State of Minnesota has been shielded from pretrial publicity regarding the death of George Floyd. Because of that pervasive media coverage, a change of venue is unlikely to cure the taint of potentially prejudicial pretrial publicity. Nevertheless, this is only a preliminary ruling and the parties are free to present the evidence from public opinion surveys they are presently conducting. In addition, this Court is planning to issue jury summons earlier than usual and to require summoned jurors to fill out questionnaires well before trial to gauge their knowledge of the case and any potential bias.”

The second factor—safety concerns—calls for “better safety planning,” which is currently being conducted by the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office and the Court. The safety concerns regarding the 9/11/20 hearing at the smaller Hennepin County Family Justice Center with limited entrances and exits suggests it is more difficult to enhance security at such facilities, which would be true if the cases were transferred to a smaller county. Having the trial at the Hennepin county Government Center would facilitate tighter control of floor access and movement. In short, the “Court believes that safety issues can be mitigated to the point that a fair and safe trial may be had in Hennepin County and a jury can be insulated from outside influence and remain impartial.”

Juror Anonymity and Sequestration[4]

After reviewing the extensive publicity about the death of Mr. Floyd and these cases and related protest and unsolicited ex parte communications to the Court and counsel, there are “strong reasons to believe that threats to jurors’ safety and impartiality exist“ in these cases and that “all reasonable means should be taken to insulate the jury from such ex parte contacts.

Therefore, the Court ordered the “jurors’ names, addresses and other identifying information . .. [to] . . .be kept confidential  by the Court and all parties throughout the trial and deliberation” After the conclusion of the trial, any information about the jurors shall be disclosed only after a “subsequent written Order” by the Court.

Each Defendant shall have five preemptory challenges of prospective jurors, and the State twelve such challenges. There will be four alternate jurors.

The jurors will be partially sequestered during trial with possible full sequestration if the partial plan “proves ineffective in keeping jurors free from outside influence.” In addition, during jury deliberations at the end of the trial, there shall be full sequestration.

Audio and Video Coverage of the Trial [5]

 The trial shall commence on March 8, 2021, and “may be recorded, broadcast, and livestreamed in audio and video subject to the conditions” contained in the order.

Order Regarding Hennepin County Attorneys[6]

The Court’s oral order removing four members of the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office from these cases is vacated although they may not “appear as advocates in the trials and may not sign any motions or pleadings in these cases.

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[1] Olson, Ex-officers charged in George Floyd case to be tried together in Hennepin County, cameras allowed in courtroom, StarTribune (Oct. 5, 2020).

[2] Order and Memorandum Opinion Granting State’s Motion for Trial Joinder, State v. Chauvin, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12646, Hennepin County District Court (Nov. 5, 2020).

[3] Preliminary Order Regarding Change of Venue, State v. Chauvin, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12646, Hennepin County District Court (Nov. 5, 2020).

[4] Order for Juror Anonymity and Sequestration, State v. Chauvin, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12646, Hennepin County District Court (Nov. 5, 2020).

[5] Order Allowing Audio and Video Coverage of Trial, State v. Chauvin, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12646, Hennepin County District Court (Nov. 5, 2020).

[6] Order, State v. Chauvin, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12646, Hennepin County District Court (Nov. 5, 2020).