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).

Developments in George Floyd Criminal Cases

As previously discussed, the September 11 hearing in the four George Floyd criminal cases had many arguments and disclosures by the parties and judge’s decisions. [1]  Here is a summary of filings in the cases since that hearing.

State’s Response to Chauvin Dismissal Motion [2]

On September 18 the State responded to Derek Chauvin’s motion to dismiss the criminal complaint for alleged lack of probable cause. The State’s 42-page brief had a detailed statement of facts regarding the May 25th police encounter with Mr. Floyd and discussion of the relevant law. Here is its summary of the State’s position:

  • “There is probable cause for each charged offense in the complaint. On May 25, 2020, Chauvin, Kueng, and Lane pinned Floyd to the ground face-down after he was suspected of using a counterfeit $20 bill to purchase a pack of cigarettes. Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck and held Floyd’s handcuffed left hand behind his back. Kueng knelt on Floyd’s back and likewise pinned Floyd’s handcuffed arms behind his back. Lane restrained Floyd’s legs with his hands and knees. And Thao—who saw what the other officers were doing and heard Floyd’s cries for help—encouraged the others to continue pinning Floyd down, pushed back a group of concerned bystanders, and prevented them from intervening.”
  • “In the first five minutes Floyd was on the ground, he told the officers at least twenty times that he could not breathe. He told them nearly ten times that he was dying. And then he fell silent. He stopped moving. He stopped breathing. And the officers could not find a pulse. As Floyd lost consciousness, a crowd of bystanders pleaded with the officers. They told the officers they were killing Floyd. They screamed that Floyd had stopped moving. They alerted the officers that Floyd had stopped breathing. And they begged the officers to take Floyd’s pulse. Nonetheless, the officers continued to pin him to the ground—with Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck, Kueng on Floyd’s back, Lane on Floyd’s legs, and Thao standing watch to prevent the bystanders on the sidewalk from approaching the other officers and Floyd.”
  • “All told, the officers held Floyd in that position for approximately nine minutes—about five times longer than the national anthem, and four times longer than President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. During that time, Chauvin continued to kneel on Floyd’s neck for about four minutes after Lane told the other officers that Floyd was “passing out,” and for two and a half minutes after Kueng said Floyd did not have a pulse. Indeed, he continued to press his knee into Floyd’s neck for a full minute after emergency medical personnel arrived on the scene, and even while emergency personnel tried to check Floyd’s pulse.”

“Probable cause is manifest. The facts here “would lead a person of ordinary care and prudence to hold an honest and strong suspicion” that Chauvin committed second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. State v. Ortiz, 626 N.W.2d 445, 449 (Minn. App. 2001). The evidence is more than sufficient to establish probable cause for each offense. This Court should therefore deny Chauvin’s motion to dismiss.”

State’s Motion for Reconsideration of  Disqualification of Hennepin County Attorneys [3]

On September 14, the State asserted that “there is no rule which requires the inclusion of a non-attorney witness when [an attorney is] speaking to an experienced and routine government witness, and ABA guidance specifically contemplates a prosecutor meeting with such a witness one-on-one, and undoubtedly four-on-one, without triggering ethical or practical concerns. . . . [T]he meeting [of] these four[HCAO] prosecutors was not any sort of “sloppy” act or unethical shortcutting. Rather, it was a reasoned decision made by conscientious public servants.”

Moreover, “the State does not plan for any of these attorneys to be a trial advocate in this case, and defense counsel has not actually identified a credible scenario under which any of them would be disqualified from serving as such, e.g. by becoming a “necessary witness” at trial, which is the defense’s burden. With that in mind, it is unwarranted to further restrict the State still more: by prohibiting the State from even consulting with these experienced prosecutors (and thus preventing Mr. Freeman and Mr. LeFevour from supervising these matters). Such a broad removal of Mr. Freeman, Mr. LeFevour, Ms. Sweasy, and Mr. Lofton unduly prejudices the State.” In addition, two of the four attorneys have “recused themselves from the case and have had no further involvement in the case.”

In addition to its citation of relevant rules and cases, the State submitted an affidavit of William J. Wernz, who is described by the Minnesota State Bar Association as the author of Minnesota Legal Ethics: A Treatise and as “one of the nation’s foremost authorities on legal ethics.”  After reviewing the relevant materials, Mr. Wernz stated under oath, “in my opinion the interviews of the Hennepin County Medical Examiner by the HCAO did not furnish any basis for conclusion that they violated Rule 3.7, nor that any of them who acted as advocate at trial would violate Rule 3.7 by so doing.”

State’s Additional Discovery Disclosures [4]

On September 16, the State disclosed that it had provided defense counsel with the body worn camera video of Mr. Floyd’s May 6, 2019 incident with the Minneapolis police. On the same date, the State disclosed its having provided other materials.

Kueng’s Request for Preemptory Challenges [5]

On September 15, Defendant J. Alexander Kueng requested that if the four cases are consolidated for trial, each of the defendants should be granted 10 preemptory challenges (but at least five such challenges) of potential jurors.

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[1] See the following posts and comments in dwk commentaries: Agenda for the 9/11/20 Hearing in the George Floyd Criminal Cases (Sept. 2, 2020); Preview of 9/11/20 Hearing in George Floyd Criminal Cases (Sept. 10, 2020); Comment: Rule 404 Evidence Motions: More Details  (Sept. 10, 2020); More Details on 9/11/20 Hearing in George Floyd Criminal Cases (Sept. 11, 2020);Results of 9/11/20 Hearing in George Floyd Criminal Cases (Sept. 12, 2020).

[2] Chauvin Moves To Dismiss Criminal Complaint, dwkcommentaries (Aug. 28, 2020); State’s Response Opposing Defendant’s Motion To Dismiss for Lack of Probable Cause, State v. Chauvin, Civil Case No. 27-CR-20-12646 (Sept.18, 2020); State’s Exhibits for Opposition to Chauvin’s Dismissal Motion ,State v. Chauvin, Civil Case No. 27-CR-20-12646 (Sept.18, 2020).

[3] State’s Notice of Motion and Motion for Reconsideration of Order Prohibiting Participation of Michael O. Freeman and Others, State v. Chauvin, Civil Case No. 27-CR-20-12646 (Sept.14, 2020); Affidavit of William J. Wernz, State v. Chauvin, Civil Case No. 27-CR-20-12646 (Sept.14, 2020).

[4] Letter, Matthew Frank to Judge Cahill, State v. Chauvin, Civil Case No. 27-CR-20-12646 (Sept.16, 2020); Supplemental Prosecution Disclosures Pursuant to Rule 9.01, Subd. 1, State v. Chauvin, Civil Case No. 27-CR-20-12646 (Sept. 16, 2020).

[5] Defendant’s Position on Peremptory Challenges, State v. Kueng, File No. 27-CR-20-12953 (Sept. 15, 2020).

 

 

 

 

Judge Peter Cahill Appointed To Handle Criminal Cases Over Death of George Floyd     

On June 12, Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill was appointed to handle the four criminal cases against Minneapolis police officers over the death of George Floyd.[1]

Cahill was appointed to the bench in 2007 by Governor Tim Pawlenty (Rep.) and elected to continue in that position in 2008 and 2014. Known for being decisive and direct, Cahill has handled other significant criminal cases.

In 2019, he presided over the jury trial of Kenneth Lilly for shooting a school bus driver on a snowy winter day. After the jury’s guilty verdict, Cahill sentenced Lilly to seven years in prison, saying the judge accepted that the defendant was “not a monster,” but did not believe the defendant’s assertions that he feared for his life when his car was hit by the slow-moving bus and that he did not know a child was on the bus. Lilly was represented by Thomas Plunkett, who argued for a lower sentence because Lilly had Asperger’s syndrome and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder from two attempted robberies. Plunkett now represents one of the four Minneapolis policemen (J. Alexander Kueng) in the Floyd case.[2]

Last year Cahill also presided over the case of Thomas Incantalupo, a former ice skating coach with a local skating club. As the trial for nine counts of sexual assaults with a young girl skater was set to commence in June 2019, the defendant accepted a deal for pleading guilty to two counts in exchange for a prison sentence between 12 and 30 years. Thereafter Cahill sentenced him to 24 years in prison after saying that there was “overwhelming evidence” against the defendant, that the defendant’s apologies “ring hollow” and that the defendant’s actions were “not cheating on your wife. This is a crime against a child.” That defendant was represented by attorney Earl Gray, now the attorney for policeman Thomas Lane in the Floyd case.[3]

Plunkett and Gray and the other two attorneys in the George Floyd case now have 10 days from June 12 to move to replace Cahill, but without having any say on who might be the                replacement and without having the right to move to replace the successor judge.

Before becoming a judge, Cahill was an attorney in the Hennepin County Public Defenders Office, 1984-1987, an attorney in private practice in the Twin Cities, 1987-1997 and in the Hennepin County Attorney’s office, 1997-2007, when Amy Klobuchar was the County Attorney (1999-2007).  His J.D. degree was awarded, magna cum laude, in 1984 by the University of Minnesota Law School.

Cahill will replace his fellow judges Jeannice Reding and Paul Scoggin, who presided respectively at the initial hearings in the Chauvin case and the other case involving the other three policemen.[4] Cahill’s appointment was made by Hennepin County District Judge Toddrick Barnette, who will become the first African-American Chief Judge of the court on July 1, 2020.[5]

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[1] Olson, Judge Peter Cahill to oversee cases of four officers charged in Floyd killing. StarTribune (June 12, 2020); The judge assigned in Floyd’s murder trial is a former assistant to Amy Klobuchar, N.Y. Times (June 12, 2020).

[2] Walsh & Jany, Suspected gunman arrested after school bus driver shot in apparent road-rage incident near downtown Minneapolis, StarTribune (Feb. 7, 2019); Charges filed against man who shot bus driver, (Video), StarTribune (Feb. 7, 2019); Walsh, Charges: Man claims self-defense for shooting Minneapolis school bus driver with girl aboard, StarTribune (Feb. 8, 2019); Xiong, Shooter who wounded school bus driver sentenced to 7 years in prison, StarTribune (Sept. 15, 2019).

[3]  Stahl, Ice-skating coach charged with sexually assaulting 14-year-old student, StarTribune (Jan. 11, 2018); Walsh, Twin Cities skating coach admits sexually abusing girl he instructed, StarTribune (June 19, 2019); Xiong, Minneapolis-area figure skating coach gets decades in prison for girl’s sex abuse, StarTribune (Sept. 27, 2019).

[4] Initial Hearings in Criminal Cases for Killing George Floyd, dwkcommentaries.com (June 10, 2020).

[5] Xiong. First chief judge of color elected in Hennepin County, StarTribune (May 5, 2020).