Cahill denied those motions, arguing in a 51-page ruling that evidence against the former Minneapolis officers — Derek Chauvin, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao — “will substantially overlap” and that separate trials would be complex and place an “undue burden” on state prosecutors and the court system.
Citing security threats, the judge also ruled that jurors in the case will be publicly anonymous — their names, addresses and other identifying information known only to the court and involved attorneys until after the trial. He also ruled that jurors will be partially sequestered; they will be allowed to sleep in their own homes, but the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office will transport them to the courthouse from a remote meeting point each day to maintain their privacy.
Cahill also decided that there can be audio and video coverage of the trial — against prosecutors’ wishes — because of the anticipated need to maintain social distancing during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
In a separate ruling, the judge also declined to move the trial out of Hennepin County, rejecting defense concerns about the ability to seat an impartial jury given the intense media coverage of the case and the possibility of protests that could threaten the safety of participants, including jurors. Cahill wrote that a “fair and safe trial” can be held in Minneapolis and pointed out that “no corner of the state of Minnesota has been shielded from pretrial publicity regarding the death of George Floyd.”
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office is overseeing the prosecution, said he was “satisfied” by the court’s decisions and thinks the case should go forward as planned.
“The murder of George Floyd occurred in Minneapolis, and it is right that the defendants should be tried in Minneapolis,” Ellison said. “It is also true that they acted in concert with each other and the evidence against them is similar, so it is right to try them in one trial.”
Floyd died May 25 while handcuffed and restrained facedown on a South Minneapolis street as police investigated a 911 call about a counterfeit $20 bill that had been passed at Cup Foods, a local convenience store. During a struggle with police, Floyd was placed on the ground, where Chauvin pressed his knee into the man’s neck for approximately nine minutes as Floyd repeatedly complained of struggling to breathe. Floyd ultimately lost consciousness and lost a pulse while subdued.
The former officers have offered various defenses. Through their attorneys, Kueng and Lane, who were rookies who had been on the job full time for less than a week, have sought to shift blame to Chauvin, a 19-year veteran of the Minneapolis Police Department who was the senior officer at the scene. Chauvin has blamed Kueng and Lane, suggesting they were in control of the scene and did not do enough to de-escalate the situation with Floyd. Thao, who was handling crowd control, has said his job was to be a “human traffic cone” and that he was not paying close attention to the scene behind him as he kept onlookers at bay.
During a pretrial hearing in September, defense attorneys for all four former officers pressed the judge for separate trials, arguing that their defenses, including who was in charge of the scene, would be “antagonistic” and risk their clients’ rights to a fair trial.
“I am not just dealing with prosecutors,” Robert Paule, an attorney for Thao, told the judge. “I am dealing with three other attorneys who are defending their clients.”
But in his ruling, Cahill rejected that argument, saying the former officers had only hinted that they will be pursing antagonistic defenses but have not formally informed the court that that is what they intend to do. The judge said that under Minnesota law, he could not “assume defenses will be antagonistic unless and until antagonistic defenses have actually been asserted.”
Cahill said the officers thus far have signaled that they will pursue similar defenses. He pointed to recent filings by Chauvin, Lane and Thao, in which their attorneys said they would seek to defend their conduct as authorized use of force permitted under state law. All of the officers also have indicated they will argue Floyd’s death was not caused by their behavior but by preexisting health conditions and drug use.
An attorney for Kueng, one of the rookies, told the judge in September that his client’s defense would put him at odds with Chauvin’s because he planned to include evidence of the training his client had received from Chauvin, who had been his field training officer. But the judge noted that Kueng “did not expressly blame Chauvin” in his notice of a planned defense filed on June 29.
Cahill also rejected claims from the defense that a joint trial would result in “classic finger-pointing” between the former officers. He noted that prosecutors, in their charges, are not seeking to prove that any of the defendants “restrained Floyd with the intent to kill him” but are instead seeking to prove Chauvin’s actions caused Floyd’s death and that the other three officers knew Chauvin was committing a crime.
All the officers, Cahill wrote, “thus have an interest in mounting common defenses, rather than adversarial defenses seeking to blame each other.”
Floyd’s death sparked a nationwide movement for social and racial justice, with protests emerging in cities from coast to coast, along with a renewed and widespread push for police overhauling. Some of the protests have pitted social justice activists against those backing law enforcement officers.
Chauvin is facing second-degree unintentional murder and manslaughter charges; Kueng, Lane and Thao are charged with aiding and abetting.
This article was updated to reflect a Nov. 6 amended order from Cahill — made public Monday, Nov. 9 — in which the judge corrected his claim from an earlier order that Kueng had not filed notice of his defense. Cahill updated the order to note that Kueng had filed such a notice, on June 29.