The ruling came after prosecutors and attorneys for Chauvin and Thao had asked the court to delay the trial until summer.
Prosecutors expressed concerns the trial could become a coronavirus “superspreader event,” citing the large number of participants and expected protests outside the courthouse. They had asked the judge to delay proceedings until June when more of the population might have received the coronavirus vaccine.
Chauvin and Thao, through their attorneys, also asked for the trial to be pushed back, complaining that prosecutors had been slow to turn over evidence and gave them material that was disorganized and riddled with technical issues.
But during a hearing on the issue last week, Cahill seemed disinclined to grant the request, citing an already packed court calendar. In a hearing held over Zoom, Cahill pressed prosecutors on why the logistics of the Floyd case were different from any other pending case before the court, which has been conducting business virtually because of a coronavirus shutdown.
Cahill’s decision reverses a November ruling, in which he rejected defense motions to try the defendants separately. In court filings, the former officers have sought to cast blame on each other, and defense attorneys have argued their antagonistic defenses put their right to a fair trial at risk.
But Cahill rejected that argument, saying the defendants’ defenses “will substantially overlap” and that separate trials would be complex and place an “undue burden” on state prosecutors and the court system.
In his scheduling order issued Tuesday, Cahill cited an email he had received from Hennepin County District Court Judge Toddrick Barnette who met with prosecutors and defense attorneys in the case last week to discuss trial logistics and security. According to an email attached to Cahill’s ruling, Barnette, the chief judge in Hennepin County, said he had been unaware of how many attorneys and support staff would be involved in the trial and advised that the designated courtroom was “not an adequate venue when enforcing social distancing.”
“I am not asking that you delay the trials,” Barnette wrote. “I’m only asking that you consider having less than all four defendants stand trial.”
In his ruling, Cahill said Chauvin would be tried first on the original court date of March 8, with roughly three weeks of jury selection. Opening arguments, Cahill said, “will begin no earlier than March 29.” His ruling specifically cited concerns over coronavirus, rejecting arguments from Chauvin and Thao that prosecutors had been slow to turn over evidence. “The state has not acted in bad faith,” Cahill wrote, though he gave Chauvin’s attorney extra time to disclose planned witnesses.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office is prosecuting the case, had pushed for a joint trial. In a statement Tuesday, Ellison said he “respectfully disagreed” with the court’s decision to try the former officers separately, suggesting multiple trials “may retraumatize eyewitnesses and family members” and taint subsequent jury pools.
“It is also clear that covid-19 will still be a serious threat to public health in eight weeks’ time,” Ellison said, adding that prosecutors will still be prepared to present their case.
Floyd died May 25 after being handcuffed and pinned facedown on a South Minneapolis street as police investigated a 911 call about a counterfeit $20 bill that allegedly had been passed at a convenience store.
Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes as the 46-year-old Black man repeatedly said he couldn’t breathe and ultimately lost consciousness. Floyd was later pronounced dead at a hospital.
Chauvin, a 19-year veteran of the Minneapolis force, was charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter, while the other officers at the scene — Kueng, Lane and Thao — were charged with aiding and abetting murder. All four were fired by the Minneapolis Police Department.
The court has already issued jury summons in the case, amid concerns about whether the officers can be tried fairly in Minneapolis. The 16-page questionnaire, disclosed in court records last month, asks respondents to disclose their views on police reform and Black Lives Matter and asks how many times, if any, they viewed the viral video of Floyd’s arrest.