Results of 9/11/20 Hearing in George Floyd Criminal Cases

Information about what happened at the 9/11/20 hearing is provided by many media reports.[1] Here is a summary of those reports, again following the court’s Agenda for the hearing.

State’s Motions

Joint Trial. The State’s arguments were presented by Special Assistant Attorney General Neal Katyal, the famous attorney, law professor and commentator from Washington, D.C. He argued that the evidence against all four defendants is similar, that witnesses and family members are “likely to be traumatized by multiple trials” and that the interests of justice necessitate a single trial because separate trials would taint future juries. He also said, “The defendants watched the air go out of Mr. Floyd’s body together. And the defendants caused Mr. Floyd’s death together.”

Thao’s attorney responded to the last point by arguing that the jury pool already has been tainted by comments about the case by Attorney General Ellison and others.

A St. Paul attorney who is not involved in the case, Paul Applebaum, said, “it’s going to be tough for the defense attorneys to get the cases separated, partly because it would be difficult for Chauvin to blame the other officers for the charges of murder and manslaughter against him, but also because of the burden of holding four separate trials.”

Aggravating Factors for Upward Sentencing. Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank argued that Floyd was particularly vulnerable because he was handcuffed and pinned to the ground. Judge Cahill expressed some skepticism of this point by asking whether what happens during an encounter qualifies for this purpose.

In  its Notice of Intent To Offer Other Evidence of 9/10/20, the State said it intended to offer evidence of Chauvin’s eight prior instances of use of excessive force, including use of  neck and upper body restraints.  In four of those, Chauvin allegedly used them “beyond the point when such force was needed under the circumstance,” an indication of his pattern, including his restraint of Floyd.[2]

Defendant’s Motions

 Motions for Change of Venue. Judge Cahill said it was too early to decide on a change of venue for the trial. He noted that Hennepin County District Court has been sending questionnaires to potential jurors to complete at home because of COVID risks and for the sake of expediency and that the court could start polling potential jurors ahead of the scheduled March 8 trial.

But two of the defense attorneys argued that the questionnaires should be completed in person at the courthouse because it carries more weight and meaning. Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank agreed.

In response to defense arguments about adverse public opinion in Hennepin County, the Judge asked one of them, “There really isn’t a country, would you agree, or a state in this country where there hasn’t been a lot of publicity about George Floyd’s death?”

Jury Sequestration. The Judge said “it would be almost cruel to keep them in on weeks at a time. Instead, he suggested they be “semi-sequestered:”  jurors drive to court each day for deputies to escort them from their vehicles to a secure elevator, have their lunches brought in to the jury room and then have them escorted back to their vehicles.

Motion to Disqualify HCAO [Hennepin County Attorney’s Office]. From the bench Judge Cahill said the HCAO’s work “sloppy” because they sent prosecutors to question the medical examiner, making them witnesses in the case. Therefore, he disqualified County Attorney Freeman and three assistants who questioned the Examiner because they are potential witnesses. However, others from the Office were not disqualified.

Afterwards Freeman and the Minnesota Attorney General requested reconsideration of this decision, which Judge Cahill granted. The request stated, “Any suggestion by Judge Cahill that the work of . . . [two Assistant County Attorneys] was sloppy was incorrect. The . . .[HCAO] fully stands by the work, dedication and commitment of two of the state’s best prosecutors. That third party mentioned by Judge Cahill does not need to be a non-attorney. [The two attorneys in question] asked to leave the case on June 3 and Frank [the other attorney in question] is the attorney of record, making . . .[the other two attorneys] valid third-parties and eligible to be called as witnesses by the defense. This HCAO decision is consistent with the relevant Minnesota Supreme Court case.

Rule 404 Evidence Motions. The Judge denied defense’s intent to offer evidence regarding Floyd’s arrest and conviction in Texas as it was irrelevant. He also denied the defense request for evidence regarding Floyd’s 05/06/19 medical incident at the Hennepin County Medical Center although he said it could come up at a later date.

Administrative Matters

Jury Selection. The Judge said that he anticipates jury selection will take two weeks with each prospective juror to take the witness stand for questioning by the attorneys.

COVID-19 Restrictions. The Judge said these restrictions would be in place with overflow rooms for family and press.

Trail Length. The Judge said he anticipates a four-week trial.

Conclusion

Although I was not in the courtroom to observe the Judge, the journalists’ reports suggest that the Judge is leaning towards a consolidated trial of all four defendants in Hennepin County under his supervision.

During the 3.5 hour hearing a highly organized, peaceful group of several hundred protesters gathered in front of the heavily fortified Family Justice Center. At first they laid silently on the ground for eight minutes and 46 seconds, which was the initially reported duration of the police pinning of Floyd on the pavement on May 25th (that figure was incorrect; the corrected number is seven minutes and 46 seconds).[3] When they rose, Marvin Gaye’s recorded voice sang, “Mother, mother, there’s too many of you crying” (the first verse from the late singer’s 1970 song “What’s going on”).

The protesters then repeatedly chanted, “Indict, Convict, Send These Killer Cops to Jail. The Whole Damn System Is Guilty As Hell!” Another call was “Say his name!” with the “George Floyd” response. Another: “Who killed him?” and “MPD.” The messages on their signs included the following: “No clemency for killer kkkops” and “Recall Freeman” and a reconfigured MPD badge to say “Murderous City of Lakes Police.”

When Lane and Kueng and their attorneys left the building, they were met by protestors yelling “Murderer!” The crowd then remained until Floyd’s family members left the building, and many of the protestors turned into a dance line, including the Electric Slide.

The protestors apparently are not aware that their protests are ammunition for the defendants’ arguments for transferring the cases to another county, where emotions are not so virulent. The protestors should adopt a different strategy.

After the hearing, Ben Crump, an attorney for the Floyd family, publicly expressed outrage over defense suggestions that Floyd’s use of drugs or earlier run-ins with the police were relevant to the killing of Floyd. “The only overdose was an overdose of excessive force and racism. It is a blatant attempt to kill George Floyd a second time.”

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[1]  Xiong & Olson, Judge disqualifies some in Mike Freeman’s office for ‘sloppy work’ in George Floyd case, StarTribune (Sept. 11, 2020); LIVE UPDATES: Tentative 2-week jury selection, 4-week trial format for George Floyd case, kstp.com (Sept. 11, 2020); Judge In Floyd Case Disqualifies Members of Hennepin co. Attorney’s Office, minnesota.cbslocal.com (Sept. 11, 2020); Olson, Protestors confront former Minneapolis police officers with shouts of ‘murderer,’ StarTribune (Sept. 11, 2020); Protestors Shout At Former MPD Officers As They Exit Pretrial Hearing in George Floyd Case, minnesota.cbslocal.com (Sept. 11, 2020); Collins & Williams, George Floyd killing: Judge disqualifies Freeman from cops’ trial, MPRNews (Sept. 11, 2020); Read Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman’s response to being disqualified from George Floyd case, StarTribune (Sept. 11, 2020); Furber, Arango & Eligon, Police Veteran Charged in George Floyd Killing Had Used Neck Restraints Before, N.Y. Times (Sept. 11, 2020); Bailey, Prosecutors allege former Minneapolis officer used neck restraint in several other cases before George Floyd’s death, Wash. Post (Sept. 11, 2020); George Floyd’s Family Lawyer Pushes Back on Police Claims (video), N.Y.Times (Sept. 11, 2020); Officers charged in George Floyd killing seek to place blame on one another, Guardian (Sept. 11, 2020).

[2] State’s Notice of Intent To Offer Other Evidence, State v. Chauvin, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12646 (Hennepin county District Court Sept. 10, 2020).

[3] Revised Length of Time for Minneapolis Police Restraint of George Floyd. dwkcommentaries.com (June 18, 2020).

 

Defense Attorneys Accuse Attorney General Ellison of Contempt of Court in George Floyd Cases  

On July 14 Earl Gray, the attorney for defendant Thomas Lane, and Robert Paule, the attorney for defendant Tou Thau, accused Attorney General Keith Ellison of contempt of court by his issuance of a statement announcing the appointment of four Special Assistant Attorney Generals in the case.[1] That statement, which was the subject of a prior post, merely said the following:

  • “Seasoned attorneys join AG Ellison’s team pro bono in George Floyd case”
  • “Includes former acting U.S. Solicitor General Neal Katyal, Minnesota attorneys Lola Velázquez-Aguilu, Jerry Blackwell, and Steve Schleicher”
  • “Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison today announced that four seasoned attorneys and trial lawyers have joined on a pro bonobasis the prosecution team he leads in the George Floyd case. This team includes attorneys from the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office and the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office.”
  • “’Out of respect for Judge Cahill’s gag order, I will say simply that I’ve put together an exceptional team with experience and expertise across many disciplines. We are united in our responsibility to pursue justice in this case,’ Attorney General Ellison said.”
  • “The attorneys joining the prosecution team, each of whom Attorney General Ellison has appointed a Special Assistant Attorney General, are:
    • “Neal Katyal, partner at the international law firm Hogan Lovells, and former acting Solicitor General and former Principal Deputy Solicitor General of the United States.
    • Lola Velázquez-Aguilu, litigation and investigation counsel for Medtronic, and former prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Minnesota. During her tenure at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, she prosecuted complex multi-defendant, white-collar crimes, including the successful prosecution and trial of several former executives from Starkey Hearing Technologies. Until today, she served as Chairwoman of the Commission on Judicial Selection, to which position she was appointed by Governor Tim Walz.
    • Jerry Blackwell, trial lawyer and founding partner, CEO, and chairman of the Minneapolis law firm Blackwell Burke, P.A. In June 2020, he won a full, first-ever posthumous pardon for Max Mason, who was wrongly convicted of rape in connection with the infamous Duluth lynching of June 1920.
    • Steven L. Schleicher, partner at the Minneapolis law firm Maslon LLP; former prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Minnesota, the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office, the Winona County Attorney’s Office, and U.S. Army Reserve JAG Corps. In 2016, he led the successful prosecution of the person responsible for the kidnapping and murder of Jacob Wetterling.”

According to Mr. Gray, “Ellison should be jailed along with” his spokesman John Stiles. “There is no reason to announce that these so called ‘super stars’ are joining the prosecution and that they’re doing it for free. It is an obvious statement to the public that these ‘super stars’ lawyers believe that our clients are guilty. Further proof that the news release was done to influence the public is that it was released by John Stiles, who, according to Google, is a chief strategy officer and builds reputations and brands.”

Mr. Paule merely moved the Court for an order holding “Keith Ellison, the Attorney General for Minnesota and lead prosecutor in the above-captioned case, in contempt of court and ordering sanctions as a result of his actions.”

The Court’s Gag Order[2]

The purported basis for these motions is the Court’s Gag Order of July 9, which prohibited attorneys and others working on the matter from publicly talking about  “any information, opinions, strategies, plans or potential evidence . . . either to the media or members of the general public. This includes, but is not limited to, any discovery provided to the parties, and any exhibits in the case.”

Reactions

Joseph Daly, professor emeritus at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, believes it unlikely that the judge will sanction or have Ellison and Stiles arrested. “Judges do not like to sanction lawyers unless their conduct is outrageous.” At most, Daly thought, the judge might  issue a warning or clarify his gag order.

I concur in Daly’s opinion. The Attorney General’s statement, in my judgment, did not concern the AG Office’s “opinions, strategies, plans or potential evidence” or evidentiary “discovery” or “exhibits in the case.” Yes, the statement did contain “information” relating to the case, but it was not information relating to opinions, strategies, plans or potential evidence or evidentiary discovery or exhibits in the case. Moreover, any of the parties in this or any other criminal or civil case has a right to hire new or additional attorneys and to give public notice of such developments.

In short, there is no basis in the Attorney General’s statement for the two defense attorneys’ assertion that it was intended to tell the public that these ‘super stars’ lawyers believe that our clients are guilty.’  It would be just as easy to speculate, without any foundation, that the statement was a sign that the Attorney General is worried about the strength of the criminal charges or the capabilities of the existing team of prosecution attorneys.

These motions are ridiculous and should be denied.

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[1]  Xiong, Defense attorneys in George Floyd’s death accuse AG Ellison of contempt of court, StarTribune (July 14, 2020); Minnesota Attorney General, Seasoned attorneys join AG Ellison’s team pro bono in George Floyd Case (July 13, 2020).

[2]  Gag Order in George Floyd Murder Cases, dwkcommentaries.com (July 9, 2020).

 

Minnesota Attorney General Appoints Special Assistant Attorney Generals for George Floyd Cases     

On July 13, Minnesota  Attorney General appointed four pro bono Special Assistant Attorney Generals. His statement said, “Out of respect for Judge Cahill’s gag order, I will say simply that I’ve put together an exceptional team with experience and expertise across many disciplines.” They are Neal Katyal, Lola Velázquez-Aguilu, Jerry Blackwell and Steven L. Schleicher.[1]

Neal Katyal is a partner in the law firm of Hogan Lovells, an U.S.-British law firm headquartered in  Washington, D.C. and London with around 2,800 lawyers in more than 40 offices in the U.S., Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia.  There he specializes in appellate and complex litigation. He also is the Paul and Patricia Saunders Professor of National Security Law at Georgetown University Law Center. In the Obama Administration he was Principal Deputy Solicitor General and Acting Solicitor General of the United States (2009-11), which is the office responsible for representing the U.S. before the U.S. Supreme Court. He has degrees from Dartmouth College and Yale Law School and clerked for Judge Guido Calabresi of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and then Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. Katyal also frequently appears as a commentator on legal and political issues on MSNBC.[2]

Lola Velázquez-Aguilu is a litigation and investigation attorney at Medtronic Corporation and Chair of the Minnesota Commission on Judicial Selection. She also is a former Assistant United States Attorney in Minnesota for nearly nine years, where  she worked in the white-collar and public corruption section of the criminal division and before that an associate attorney at the Minneapolis office of the Dorsey and Whitney law firm, where she represented civil litigants and criminal defendants. She also clerked for retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan C. Page and U.S. District Court Judge Ann D. Montgomery. She has served in various organizations such as the Infinity Project, Minnesota Federal Bar Association, Minnesota Hispanic Bar Association. Her B.A. and J.D. degrees are from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.[3]

Jerry Blackwell is the founding partner, CEO and chairman of the Minneapolis law firm of Blackwell Burke P.A. He is an experienced trial lawyer in federal and states courts in 47 states and other countries. He also is the founder of the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers. His B.S. and J.D. degrees are from the University of North Carolina. Earlier this year he won the state’s first posthumous pardon for Max Mason, a Black man wrongly convicted of rape 100 years ago in Duluth. [4]

Steven L. Schleicher is a partner at the Minneapolis law firm of  Maslon and the co-Chair of its Government & Internal Investigations Group. He is an experienced trial and appellate lawyer concentrating on criminal defense, government and internal investigations and high stakes civil litigation. Previously he was an Assistant U.S. Attorney and Assistant Minnesota Attorney General, an attorney in the Winona County Attorney’s Office and a JAG Corps Officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. His B.A. degree, cum laude is from the University of Minnesota, Duluth and his J.D. degree, cum laude, from William Mitchell College of Law. Schleicher led the successful prosecution of Jacob Wetterling’s kidnapper and killer.[5]

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[1] Xiong, Attorneys for ex-Minneapolis officers object to judge’s gag order in George Floyd death, StarTribune (July 13, 2020); Minnesota Attorney General, Seasoned attorneys join AG Ellison’s team pro bono in George Floyd case (July 13, 2020).

[2] Neal Katyal, Wikipedia; Neal Katyal, Hogan Lovells; Neal K. Katyal, Georgetown University Law Center, Hogan Lovells;  Hogan Lovells, Wikipedia.

[3] Lola Velázquez-Aguilu, Linkedin, Lola Velázquez-Aguilu, Members of the Minnesota Commission on Judicial Selection.

[4] Jerry W. Blackwell, Blackwell Burke P.A. 

[5] Steven L. Schleicher, Maslon.