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Derek Chauvin’s attorney asks for continuance and change of venue in George Floyd case

Citing last week's civil $27 million settlement, Judge Peter A. Cahill did not rule on these defense motions, proceeding with jury selection on March 15. (Video: The Washington Post)

MINNEAPOLIS — The attorney for Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged in George Floyd’s death, on Monday asked the judge overseeing the case to delay the trial and reconsider a change-of-venue motion, saying he was “gravely concerned” that the announcement last week that the city had agreed to pay Floyd’s family $27 million to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit had tainted the jury pool.

Chauvin’s defense attorney, Eric Nelson, questioned the “suspicious timing” of the settlement and argued that it was “highly prejudicial” against his client. He asked Hennepin County District Court Judge Peter A. Cahill to “at least” call back the jurors already seated in the case to question them about whether they had read news of the settlement and if they could continue to be impartial in the trial.

“The fact that this came in the exact middle of jury selection, it’s perplexing to me,” Nelson said. “Whose idea was it to release this information?”

He criticized members of the Minneapolis City Council and Mayor Jacob Frey, suggesting they had intended to sway public opinion in the case. He was particularly critical of Frey, who is a civil rights lawyer, saying, “He should have known better.” And he mentioned that council member Jeremiah Ellison is a son of Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office is handling the case against Chauvin — though Nelson quickly added that he was not “accusing Mr. Ellison of anything.”

“It is profoundly disturbing to the defense because ultimately the goal of this system is to provide a fair trial. And this is not fair,” Nelson said.

Cahill did not immediately rule on the defense requests but agreed that the developments were “concerning.”

“I wish city officials would stop talking about this case so much,” Cahill said. “But at the same time, I don’t find any evil intent that they are trying to tamper with this criminal case.”

The judge agreed he would have to call back the seated jurors but suggested he would do so closer to the date of opening arguments, scheduled for March 29. He said he would take the other defense motions into consideration and proceed with jury selection.

Steve Schleicher, a Minnesota special assistant attorney general who is one of the prosecutors in the case, did not immediately oppose the defense motion for continuance, but he pressed Cahill to “take a step back [and] look at the actual effect” before making a decision. He agreed with the judge’s assessment that the development was “unfortunate.”

“All I can say to the court is there are some things that the state of Minnesota and this prosecution team can control, and there are some things that the state cannot and does not control,” Schleicher said. “We can control the witnesses we call. We can control the evidence that we bring in. We can control the motions, but we cannot and do not control the civil aspect of the case. We cannot and do not control the Minneapolis City Council, and we certainly cannot and do not control the news cycle.”

He said the prosecution was as concerned as the defense about the impact of the settlement news on jurors. “I don’t even know which way that cuts — if that cuts for us, if that cuts against us,” Schleicher said.

“The problem is it cuts,” Cahill replied. “I think the defense has a legitimate concern.”

During a morning break, Ellison, who has joined his team at the prosecution table for much of the proceedings, appeared to bristle at Nelson’s mention of his son to the judge. “Is there anything else someone would like to not accuse me of?” he said loudly before Cahill returned to the bench.

The settlement was announced during an afternoon break in jury selection Friday and went unmentioned for the rest of the day, even as several city officials, including Frey, joined the Floyd family and their attorneys at a nearby news conference to announce the payout.

Several observers have questioned the timing of the settlement and why the city didn’t wait to announce the deal until after the trial.

In 2019, the city paid $20 million to the family of Justine Damond, who was fatally shot in 2017 by a Minneapolis police officer as she approached his squad car after calling 911. That settlement was announced after a jury convicted the former officer.

A Minneapolis official told The Washington Post on Friday that the city was concerned about the timing. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said the city consulted with Hennepin County Chief District Court Judge Toddrick S. Barnette, who told the city it could proceed. Barnette did not respond to a request for comment.

Chauvin, the White police officer filmed with his knee on Floyd’s neck for about nine minutes during a police investigation on May 25, is facing charges of second- and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the Black man’s death. Three other officers charged in the case — J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas K. Lane and Tou Thao — are set to be tried separately in August.

Attorneys for all four officers have repeatedly called for the trial to be moved out of Hennepin County, arguing it is not possible to seat a fair jury in Minneapolis because of the extensive news coverage and intense emotions over Floyd’s death and policing.

Nine jurors have been seated, including two more Monday: a Black man in his 30s who coaches youth sports and a White woman in her 50s who told the court she works as an executive assistant at a health-care clinic in Minneapolis.

Jury selection has moved at a faster pace than expected as the court seeks to impanel 12 jurors and up to four alternates. Potential jurors have been asked to avoid the news since they were summoned in the case in late December, and Cahill often begins their questioning by asking whether they have “accidentally” been exposed to any headlines and what they recall of that news.

Some observers have said it is possible that Cahill could scrap jury selection and start over.

“This development is not good for anybody. Nobody wants to redo this,” said Joe Tamburino, a longtime Minneapolis defense attorney. “This is not good for the defense. … And this is not good for the prosecution. Under our rules of ethics, they have a greater duty to make sure fairness occurs in trials than anyone else. And this is bad for the system.”

The impact on jury selection was immediate. The first potential juror summoned for questioning Monday morning told Cahill that she had heeded the court’s request to avoid the news but accidentally heard about the $27 million settlement on the radio Friday.

“My guess is that with that large of a settlement that the city felt that they would not prevail in civil court and therefore didn’t feel that they could make a case to overcome the preponderance of evidence,” the woman, identified in court as Juror No. 51, told Cahill when he asked her interpretation of the settlement. She apologized to the judge, saying she was “sorry” that she knew so much.

The woman, who told the court she lives in South Minneapolis, said she had already found aspects of the case unavoidable, mentioning that she often drove near 38th and Chicago, the intersection where Floyd was killed, and had passed the remains of the 3rd Precinct police station, which was burned during protests in the aftermath of Floyd’s death.

“I always like to think of myself as somebody who tries to be impartial, but I’ve just been exposed to so much information,” the woman said, adding that she wouldn’t be able to put the $27 million settlement out of her mind.

Outside the Hennepin County Government Center, where the trial is being held, several dozen people gathered in a peaceful protest of proceedings that many in the community already view with deep distrust after years of seeing Minnesota police officers escape punishment for the killing and abuse of people of color.

“I mean, look around us. Everything around us says this isn’t going to be a fair trial,” said Selena McKnight, a 46-year-old Black woman from North Minneapolis, as she stood in a light snow gesturing to the blocks of extensive fencing and barbed wire that have transformed the courthouse area into something akin to a war zone.

While she criticized Chauvin’s defense for trying to delay the trial, McKnight admitted she was skeptical of Minneapolis officials’ decision to settle with the Floyd family before a jury has rendered a verdict.

“It’s like they are saying, ‘Let’s go ahead and just throw some money and just hush-hush everybody up, because we already know what the end result is going to be,’” she said.

Jared Goyette contributed to this report.