Developments in State’s Prosecution of Ex-Officers for Aiding and abetting the Killing of George Floyd   

As noted in a prior post, on May 12, attorneys for Tou Thao filed a motion for sanctions for alleged prosecutorial misconduct, and on May 20, the State submitted a blistering opposition to that motion. Also on May 20, the Minnesota Court of Appeals heard arguments in the State’s appeal of the trial court’s denial of its motion to add a charge of aiding and abetting third-degree murder against the other three ex-officers.

Thao’s  Motion [1]

The basis for this motion was the State’s allegedly (a) having Dr. Roger Mitchell, a former Chief Medical Examiner for Washington, D.C., pressure Dr. Andrew Baker, the Hennepin County Medical Examiner, to change his preliminary findings of “no physical findings [supporting] a diagnosis of traumatic asphyxia or strangulation” to the final findings of “neck compression;” and (b) after Chauvin’s chief medical expert (Dr. Fowler) testified that in his opinion the cause of death was undetermined, Dr. Mitchell wrote to Maryland officials to investigate Dr. Fowler’s qualifications and such an investigation was commenced by the Maryland Attorney General.

On that basis the motion requested an order (a) dismissing the criminal charges against Thao; (b) barring seven attorneys (Including Attorney General Ellison and Neal Katyal) from participating in any trial against Thao; (c) asserting complaints about these attorneys to their professional responsibility authorities; and (d) requiring the State to report Dr. Mitchell to the appropriate medical boards.

On the same day of the motion, the State submitted a short letter to the Court from Minnesota Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank saying that this motion asserted, “Bizarre allegations . . . [that] are false and wrong.”

A more detailed and fierce response from the State was filed on May 20. It asserted that this “motion is another bad-faith attempt by Defendant Thao to debase the State, disqualify members of the prosecution team, and divert attention from his role in the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. . . .These preposterous accusations are simply false, and . . .Thao does not even offer a shred of evidence to support this baseless conspiracy theory. If anything, the very facts . . . Thao offers [the sworn testimony of Dr. Baker]disprove the accusations he makes.”

“The State also cannot, and did not, control or influence the response to Dr. Fowler’s public testimony from the medical community at large . . . . [Over 400] medical professionals found Dr. Fowler’s testimony to be so contrary to accepted medical standards that they publicly expressed concern about the credibility of Dr. Fowler’s work. . . .[This] is evidence against, not for, the wild accusations of defense counsel.”

Thao’s attorney “has launched a frivolous motion practice campaign to unfairly prejudice the prosecution in the public domain, replete with gratuitous and unfounded personal attacks on the prosecution. To make false accusations of coercion against the State n an attempt to tarnish professional reputation, taint the jury pool, and advance Defendant’s interest in the public eye is beyond the pale.”

Therefore, argued the State, “the court should summarily deny ]this motion} . . .and remind defense counsel of his obligation to refrain from frivolous motion practice.”

Appellate Argument Over Aiding and Abetting Third-Degree Murder [2]

On May 20, the Minnesota Court of Appeals heard arguments in a pending appeal by the State over whether or not the three co-defendants (Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao) could be charged with aiding and abetting third-degree murder of George Floyd.

Neal Katyal for the State argued that this appellate court already had decided that a charge of third-degree murder was viable against Derek Chauvin, for which he was convicted in April, and that appellate decision “should settle the [issue for the other three defendants].

For the three co-defendants attorney Deborah Ellis argued that it was legally impossible for them to be charged with aiding and abetting third-degree murder because that is an unintentional act and relies on a defendant’s reckless state of mine, but aiding and abetting must be intentional. This, she argued, required the principal actor and the accomplice to be of the same mindset.

One of the three appellate judges, Judge Renee Worke, said this was a “novel” argument while Attorney Katyal said this argument was just wrong. A defendant and aids a crime of recklessness if he intentionally assist in the reckless act, knowing it is reckless. Moreover, the State could just charge the three co-defendants as principal actors.

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[1] See Developments in State Criminal Cases for George Floyd Killing, dwkcommentaries.com (May 13, 2021); State’s Response to Defendant Thao’s Motion for Sanctions Regarding Alleged Witness Coercion, State v. Thao, Hennepin County District Court, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12949 (May 20, 2021); Olson, Prosecutors deny defense claim that medical examiner’s opinion in George Floyd’s death was coerced, StarTribune (May 20, 2021).

[2] Forlit (AP), Appeals court hears case of 3 ex-cops charged in Floyd death, StarTribune (May 20, 2021).

Developments in State Criminal Cases for George Floyd Killing

 There have been four recent developments in the state criminal cases over the killing of George Floyd: (a) the state trial court’s delaying the criminal trial of the other three defendants (Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao); (b) conducting a hearing on Lane’s motion for discovery of certain use-of-force reports by the Minneapolis Police Department; (c) conducting a hearing on motions for sanctions for alleged leak of alleged Chauvin offer to plead guilty; and (d) Thao’s motion for sanctions for alleged illegal pressure on Hennepin County Medical Examiner.

Delay of Trial [1]

At the May 13 pretrial hearing in the three cases, Judge Peter Cahill announced that the trial would be delayed from August 25, 2021 to March 7, 2022. The Judge gave three reasons for this postponement: (a) provide time for the Judge to deal with pending issues in the cases; (b) provide time for the recently filed federal criminal case against all four ex-officers to proceed since it carries higher potential penalties; [2] and (c) provide time for the publicity about the trial and conviction of Derek Chauvin to diminish.

The three defendants favored the postponement. The State did not .

Nekima Levy Armstrong, a lawyer and prominent civil rights activist in Minneapolis, did not approve of this postponement. She said, “I think we they should have just moved forward. I don’t think it helps our community in a positive way to have to wait about another year.”

Lane’s Motion for Discovery [3]

Previously Lane had requested the State to disclose all use-of-force reports for the last 30 years in which a Minneapolis police officer intervened verbally or physically against another officer’s use of force and the State objected. Lane’s attorney believes there are no such reports and thus discredit the aiding and abetting charges against Lane (and the other two ex-officers )for not intervening to stop Chauvin’s restraint of George Floyd.

Matthew Frank for the State argued that the request was overly broad and should be denied. ts brief stated, that Lane had “not established how the intentions and actions of individual police officers in past years in other incidents would be admissible to impeach testimony about the objectively reasonable officer standard. His failure to address the factual or legal standards necessary to this motion highlight that this is not a serious discovery motion, but simply an attempt to usurp the Court’s time and resources so counsel for Defendant Lane can obtain a public forum to argue his theory of the case. His motion should be summarily denied.”

The Judge said he would take the motion under advisement and later issue an order on the motion.

Three Co-Defendants Motion for Sanctions [4]

The three co-defendants (Lane, Kueng and Thao) have alleged that the prosecution leaked to the New York Times an alleged offer by Chauvin to plead guilty to third -degree murder only three days after the killing of Mr. Floyd.[5]

At the May 13th  hearing, this subject was raised when the three co-defendants asked for the prosecutors to testify under oath or submit affidavits that they did not leak this information, and Judge Cahill revealed that shortly after publication of the Times article he had asked the prosecutors to do just that, but only one such affidavit was provided (by Matthew Frank) while Attorney General Ellison submitted a letter (not under oath) that the prosecution team was not the source.

Judge Cahill tentatively scheduled an August hearing on this matter, and one of the co-defendants’ attorneys said he would subpoena prosecutors who had not submitted affidavits as well as the New York Times reporter for the article (Tim Arango) even though Judge Cahill expressed concern about a subpoena to the journalist in light of his First Amendment protections. (Indeed, the New York Times subsequently stated that it “will vigorously defend against any effort to target our reporters and their sources.”

Thao’s Motion for Sanctions [6]

On March 12 attorneys for Tou Thao filed a motion for sanctions for alleged prosecutorial misconduct in allegedly (a) having Dr. Roger Mitchell, a former Chief Medical Examiner for Washington, D.C., pressure Dr. Andrew Baker, the Hennepin County Medical Examiner, to change his preliminary findings of “no physical findings [supporting] a diagnosis of traumatic asphyxia or strangulation” to the final findings of “neck compression;” and (b) after Chauvin’s chief medical expert (Dr. Fowler) testified that in his opinion the cause of death was undetermined, Dr. Mitchell wrote to Maryland officials to investigate Dr. Fowler’s qualifications and such an investigation was commenced by the Maryland Attorney General.

The motion then requested an order (a) dismissing the criminal charges against Thao; (b) barring seven attorneys (Including Attorney General Ellison and Neal Katyal) from participating in any trial against Thao; (c) asserting complaints about these attorneys to their professional responsibility authorities; and (d) requiring the State to report Dr. Mitchell to the appropriate medical boards.

The same day (May 12) Minnesota Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank sent a letter to the Judge, saying that this motion asserted, “Bizarre allegations . . . [that] are false and wrong” and that the State requested one week to file a response to the motion.

Conclusion

The issues keep coming.

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[1] Xiong, State trial postponed to March 2022 for ex-officers charged with aiding and abetting murder in George Floyd death, StarTribune (May 13, 2021); Furber, Judge Delays Trial for Other Officers Charged in Killing of George Floyd, N.Y. Times (May 13, 2021); Bailey, Trial for 3 former officers charged in George Floyd’s murder delayed until March, Wash. Post (May 13, 2021); Karnowski & Forliti (AP), Trial for 3 ex-cops charged in Floyd’s death pushed to March, Wash. Post (May 13, 2021); Winter, Judge Delays trial in George Floyd Case, W.S.J. (May 13, 2021).

[2] See Federal Criminal Charges Against Ex-Minneapolis Policemen Over George Floyd Killing, dwkcommentaries.com (May 7, 2021).

[3] See n.1 supra. See also State’s Response to Defendant Lane’s February 10, 2021 Discovery Motion, State v. Lane, Hennepin County District Court, Case No. 27-CR-20-12951 (May 11, 2021).

[4] See n. 1 supra.

[5] See n. 1 supra; Did Derek Chauvin Agree to Plead Guilty to Third-Degree Murder for Killing George Floyd, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 11, 2021).

[6] See n. 1 supra. See also  Motion for Sanctions for Prosecutorial Misconduct Stemming from Witness Coercion, State v. Thao, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12949, Hennepin County District Court May 12, 2021), https://www.mncourts.gov/mncourtsgov/media/High-Profile-Cases/27-CR-20-12949-TT/NOMM05122021.pdf; Letter, Matthew Frank (Assistant Attorney General) to Judge Cahill, State v. Thao, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12949, Hennepin County District Court May 12, 2021).. https://www.mncourts.gov/mncourtsgov/media/High-Profile-Cases/27-CR-20-12949-TT/Correspondence05122021.pdf.