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.

================================

[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).

Chauvin Moves To Dismiss Criminal Complaint 

On August 28, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin filed a motion to dismiss the criminal complaints against him.[1] Here is a summary of this motion.

Dismissal of Count I–Second Degree Unintentional Murder

 Count I of the Amended Complaint alleges Chauvin is guilty of Second Degree Unintentional Murder by reason of his allegedly committing a Third Degree Assault. But it does not even “allege that Mr. Chauvin possessed the intent to inflict bodily harm upon Mr. Floyd.” And “the State has offered no evidence to support the intent element of third-degree assault.” (Chauvin Memo at 9.)

Instead, the evidence shows that Floyd “was struggling in and around the squad [car] at a busy Minneapolis intersection. He was handcuffed and acting erratically. Continued struggle posed a risk of injury to Mr. Floyd and, potentially, to officers. The decision to use MRT allowed officers to restrain Mr. Floyd without injury until EMS arrived on scene. Mr. Chauvin, who arrived at the scene as officers were already struggling with Mr. Floyd, checked to ensure that EMS had been called.” (Id. at 9-10.)

“The Medical Examiner found no bruising on Mr. Floyd’s neck or on any neck muscles or any injury to neck structures. There was no bruising on Mr. Floyd’s back or evidence of blunt trauma to his back. If Mr. Chauvin had intended to inflict harm to Mr. Floyd’s back and neck with his knee, surely there would be evidence of bruising. But clearly, Mr. Chauvin was cautious about the amount of pressure he used to restrain Mr. Floyd—cautious enough to prevent bruising. Video evidence shows Mr. Chauvin was calm and professional throughout the application of MRT” or Maximal Restraint Technique that was a technique approved by the Minneapolis Police Department. (Id. at 10.)

Dismissal of Count II–Third-Degree, Depraved Mind Murder

“Count II of the Amended Complaint charges Mr. Chauvin with Third Degree Murder— Perpetrating Eminently Dangerous Act and Evincing Depraved Mind, in violation of Minn. Stat. § 609.195(a). Under Minnesota law, however, ‘[d]epraved mind murder cannot occur where the defendant’s actions were focused on a specific person.’ State v. Barnes, 713 N.W.2d 325, 331 (Minn. 2006) (citing State v. Wahlberg, 296 N.W.2d 408, 417 (Minn. 1980)).” (Id. at 11.)

“As the Minnesota Supreme Court has explained, ‘We have made clear that the statute covers only acts committed without special regard to the effect on any particular person or persons.’ State v. Zumberge, 888 N.W.2d 688, 698 (Minn. 2017). ‘[T]he act must be committed without a special design upon the particular person or persons with whose murder the accused is charged.’ Id. (appellant’s claims that he shot “toward” not “at” the decedent precludes a third degree murder instruction) (citation omitted). Third degree murder is reserved to cover cases where the act was ‘reckless or wanton,’ such as firing a gun into a bus or driving a vehicle into a crowd. Wahlberg, 296 N.W.2d at 417. That is simply not the case here.” (Id. at 11.)

Dismissal of Count III—Culpable Negligence Manslaughter

 This charge requires proof of the actor’s “objective gross negligence” and “subjective recklessness.” (Id. at 12.)

Under Minnesota cases, “objective gross negligence” is an act that was “a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the actor’s situation.” Here, Chauvin as a police officer in an emergency situation under Minnesota case law had ‘significant independent judgment and discretion’ . . . ‘precisely because a more stringent standard could inhibit action.’ (Id. at 12-13.)

Chauvin’s attorney then argues,  “Such discretion often comes into play when an officer must gauge how much force to use in order to effect an arrest. The amount of force authorized is dependent on the subject being arrested, the circumstances of the arrest, and the ever-developing fact pattern of any arrest scenario.” (Id. at 13.)

Here, “Chauvin was acting within his duties to execute a legitimate legal process—assisting other officers with effecting their arrest of George Floyd,” who was actively resisting arrest when Chauvin arrived on the scene. Quoting Minnesota cases, in such cases, an ‘officer may use all necessary and lawful means to make the arrest’ and is authorized “to escalate their use of force, short of deadly force, as necessary.” Here, under MDP policy, the use of MRT was authorized because Floyd was ‘handcuffed, . . .combative and still pose a threat to themselves, officers or others, or could cause significant damage to property if not properly restrained.” (Id. at 14-19.)

Moreover, the evidence shows Chauvin performed the MRT in accordance with MPD training materials and manuals and did not actually and consciously disregard the risks associated with MRT. And the Hennepin County Medical Examiner found no bruising on Floyd’s neck or muscles or neck structures or on his back. (Id. at 14-20.)

Dismissal of All Counts—Chauvin Did Not Cause Floyd’s Death

According to the relevant Minnesota statutes and cases, conviction for homicide requires that ‘the act of the defendant [was] the proximate cause of death of [the victim] without the intervention of an efficient independent force in which the defendant did not participate or which he could not reasonably have foreseen” or that “the defendant’s conduct was a ‘substantial causal factor’ in bringing about the victim’s death.” (Id. at 21.)

Chauvin’s attorney then asserts, “Mr. Chauvin was not the proximate cause of Mr. Floyd’s death, because an ‘independent force’ . . . in which Mr. Chauvin ‘did not participate’ and which ‘he could not reasonably have foreseen’ intervened: Fentanyl.” (Id.)

“It is clear from the evidence that Mr. Floyd was under the influence of narcotics when he encountered the officers and that he most likely died from an opioid overdose. . . . His body contained a lethal dose of fentanyl—[1ng/ml—as well as methamphetamine, at the time of his death.” Indeed, Chauvin quotes the Hennepin County Medical Examiner, Dr. Andrew Baker, telling the prosecutors on June 1, ‘If he were found dead at home alone & no other apparent causes, this could be acceptable to call an OD [overdose].’ [2] But Chauvin’s attorney does not quote the next note: “Baker. I am not saying this killed him.” (Emphasis added.)

Moreover, Chauvin’s attorney does not quote Dr. Baker’s actual autopsy report (5/26/20) that was titled “Cardiopulmonary Arrest complicating Law Enforcement Subdual, Restraint, and Neck Compression” or the County Medical Examiner’s Press Release (05/26/20) with the same statement for “Cause of Death” plus ‘How injury occurred: Decedent experienced a cardiopulmonary arrest while being restrained by law enforcement officer(s)’ and ‘Manner of death: Homicide.’[3]

Also not quoted by Chauvin’s attorney were the June 10 report by the Defense Health Agency concurring with the ‘autopsy findings and the cause of death certificate’ by the Hennepin County Medical Examiner. Or the findings of Dr. Michael Baden and Dr. Allecia Wilson, who were retained by the attorneys for the Floyd family, that found that Floyd ’died of traumatic asphyxia due to the compression of his neck and back during restraint by police’ and ‘Manner of Death’ was ‘homicide.’ State v. Chauvin, Court file No. 27-CR-20-12646 (Hennepin County District Court Aug. 28, 2020).[4]

Chauvin’s attorney admits in this brief that Floyd “told officers that he had suffered from COVID-19.” Moreover, Chauvin arrived at the scene with fellow ex-officer Thao, who testified during an interview by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) and FBI, that when he and Chauvin were driving to join Lane and Keung at the scene they were told on the phone that someone who had appeared to be intoxicated had passed a fake bill at Cup Foods and after arrival Thao had heard Floyd say he had had COVID-19 while he was in the back seat of a squad car before he went to the pavement outside the car and Thao had been worried that Floyd was on drugs.

Chauvin’s attorney boldly states that even though Lane and Keung may have observed signs of Floyd’s overdose and medical trauma, “none of this information was shared with Mr. Chauvin. Therefore, “Chauvin was unaware of the potential dangers of using MRT on Mr. Floyd.” (Chauvin Memo at 25-26 (emphasis in original).) This appears to be an unfounded overstatement of the record.

Conclusion

Given the recent filing of this Chauvin motion, as of noon on September 9, the State had not yet responded to this motion, but clearly it will oppose same before the court considers and rules on the four dismissal motions on the briefs and record.

================================

[1] Defendant’s Notice of Motions and Motions To Dismiss, State v. Chauvin, Court file No. 27-CR-20-12646 (Hennepin County District Court Aug. 28, 2020);  Memorandum of Law in Support of Defendant’s Motion To Dismiss, State v. Chauvin, Court file No. 27-CR-20-12646 (Hennepin County District Court Aug. 28, 2020); Defendant’s Exhibit List in Support of Motion To Dismiss for Lack of Probable Cause, State v. Chauvin, Court file No. 27-CR-20-12646 (Hennepin County District Court Aug. 28, 2020); Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s autopsy report (5/26/20) (Ex. 20),  State v. Chauvin, Court file No. 27-CR-20-12646 (Hennepin County District Court Aug. 28, 2020); Hennepin County Attorney’s Office memos of interviews of Dr. Andrew Baker (Hennepin County Medical Examiner) on 5/26/20, 5/27/20 & 5/31/20, (Ex.6), State v. Chauvin, Court file No. 27-CR-20-12646 (Hennepin County District Court Aug. 28, 2020); Notes from Hennepin County Attorney’s [6/1/20] interview with Dr. Andrew Baker{Hennepin County Medical Examiner], (Ex.6), State v. Chauvin, Court file No. 27-CR-20-12646 (Hennepin County District Court Aug. 28, 2020); Hennepin County Attorney’s Office summary of communications with Chief Tim Longo, University of Virginia Police Department (5/26/20-6/3/20) (Ex.6), State v. Chauvin, Court file No. 27-CR-20-12646 (Hennepin County District Court Aug. 28, 2020); Defense Health Agency autopsy summary report (6/10/20) (Ex. 19), State v. Chauvin, Court file No. 27-CR-20-12646 (Hennepin County District Court Aug. 28, 2020); Summary of autopsies of Floyd by Drs. Baden and Wilson on behalf of Floyd Family (7/2/20) (Ex.6), State v. Chauvin, Court file No. 27-CR-20-12646 (Hennepin County District Court Aug. 28, 2020). See also Raice & Ailworth, George Floyd’s Death Likely Caused by Drug Overdose, Argue Derek Chauvin’s Lawyers, W.S.J. (Aug. 28, 2020); Bailey, In new filing, Derek Chauvin previews his defense, but also seeks dismissal of charges, Wash. Post (Aug. 29, 2020); Olson, Chauvin lawyer: Restraint didn’t kill Floyd, ill health and drug abuse did, StarTribune (Aug. 29, 2020).

[2] Chauvin Memo at 22; Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, Notes from Notes from [6/1/20] interview with Dr. Andrew Baker{Hennepin County Medical Examiner], (Ex.6), State v. Chauvin, Court file No. 27-CR-20-12646 (Hennepin County District Court Aug. 28, 2020).

[3] Affidavit of Matthew Frank Exs. 4 & 5 (Aug 10, 2020), State v. Lane, Court file No. 27-CR-20-12951 (Hennepin County District Court Aug. 10, 2020).

[4] Summary of Dr. Michael Baden and Dr. Allecia Wilson’s findings (7/2/20), (Ex.6), State v. Chauvin, Court file No. 27-CR-20-12646 (Hennepin County District Court Aug. 28, 2020) (Exs. 6, 19)