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Derek Chauvin trial judge to question jurors Wednesday about George Floyd family settlement

Before continuing with jury selection in the trial on March 16, Judge Cahill said his court was "not involved" in releasing the civil settlement information. (Video: The Washington Post)

MINNEAPOLIS — The judge overseeing the criminal trial related to George Floyd’s death plans to re-interview several jurors already seated in the case on Wednesday to determine whether news of the city’s $27 million settlement with Floyd’s family has compromised their ability to be impartial toward Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer charged in his killing.

Hennepin County District Court Judge Peter A. Cahill said he would question seven of the nine jurors seated in the case via Zoom on Wednesday morning as he weighs requests from Chauvin’s attorney to delay the case and reconsider a change-of-venue motion because of publicity related to the settlement.

The seven jurors being recalled were seated last week, before the Minneapolis City Council voted unanimously to settle the wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Floyd’s family.

Eric Nelson, Chauvin’s attorney, said Monday he was “gravely concerned” the settlement announcement had tainted the jury pool, including those already seated. He has repeatedly questioned the “suspicious timing” of the agreement and argued it had made it impossible for his client to receive a fair trial.

On Tuesday, Nelson read into the court record details from a Washington Post story published Friday in which an unnamed Minneapolis official said the city had been concerned the announcement could affect the trial.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to The Post because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said the city consulted with Hennepin County Chief District Judge Toddrick S. Barnette, who told the city it could proceed. Barnette has not responded to a request for comment.

Cahill told Nelson the city official had not made “an accurate statement” to The Post — though he added the caveat that he was not speaking for Barnette.

“The bottom line is this is a federal lawsuit. This court was not involved. And as I recall in my discussions with Judge Barnette, the answer was, ‘We can’t tell you what to do,’ ” Cahill said. “And I think he expressed the concern that we have about doing such a thing in the middle of jury selection. So there is no approval by this court. We had no authority to approve any release at this time.”

“I think the city is trying to dump their responsibility back in the court where it does not belong,” Cahill added. “It is what it is.”

Cahill has called the settlement announcement “concerning” and described defense complaints about the prejudicial impact on the jury as “legitimate.” But he indicated Tuesday that he would not rule on the defense requests to delay or move the trial out of Minneapolis until after he had re-interviewed the jurors to determine whether they had been compromised.

Cahill told the attorneys he expected to interview jurors for about five minutes apiece and did not think it was necessary to ask them to return to the Hennepin County Government Center, where the trial is being held. While no attorneys raised immediate objections, both the prosecution and defense have raised concerns in the past about talking to jurors via Zoom, saying it the virtual questioning made it harder to judge a person’s honesty.

The judge indicated the jurors will be under oath and that only he will question them. While parties in the case will be allowed on the Zoom, only audio, not video, will be broadcast to the public, to preserve the jurors’ anonymity.

Cahill’s decision is a tentative win for prosecutors, who had asked the judge to “take a step back [and] look at the actual effect” of the news of the settlement before making a decision on trial timing and venue.

“I think that this $27 million settlement has been, frankly, overblown,” Steve Schleicher, a Minnesota special assistant attorney general and one of the prosecutors in the case, told the court Tuesday.

He argued it was still unclear whether the news had tainted the process, revealing for the first time that 329 people had been summoned as potential jurors in the case — leaving more than 200 left to be questioned.

“We have plenty of time. We have plenty of people. We can take all the time questioning what we need to determine from an individual and whether there’s prejudice to the defendant,” Schleicher said.

Cahill said he regarded news of the settlement as “problematic, but less problematic” than other recent news coverage in the case, including reports that Chauvin had agreed to plead guilty to third-degree murder days after Floyd’s death but that the deal was rejected by then-Attorney General William P. Barr.

“Let’s face it, it’s not just a legal decision. That’s a political decision,” Cahill said of the settlement. “And I think people realize that, and they realize that’s not anybody in this room who’s doing that.”

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

Jury selection has continued this week, despite the defense’s request to delay the trial. Since Monday, prospective jurors have been pressed by Cahill on whether they have been “exposed to some information either about this case or about related cases” and if that had affected their ability to be impartial about Chauvin. At least two of those questioned said they had seen headlines about the settlement and were subsequently dismissed.

The two jurors seated 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 — both indicated to the court they had successfully avoided news about the case since they received summons in December.

Nine people have been seated in the case, as the court seeks a panel of 12 jurors and up to four alternates — a faster pace than many had expected. Seven potential jurors were questioned Tuesday, but none was seated.

Nelson asked the judge to consider sequestering the jury during the trial, but Cahill flatly rejected that motion Tuesday, along with a defense requests for additional peremptory strikes, which allow attorneys to block a potential juror without cause.

As of Tuesday, Chauvin’s attorney had used 11 of the 15 peremptory strikes the defense was allotted, while the prosecution had used five of its nine.

Opening statements in the trial are scheduled to begin no earlier than March 29.