The four former Minneapolis police officers charged in George Floyd's killing will be tried together in Hennepin County instead of separately in suburban or outstate Minnesota, a judge ruled Thursday.
Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill rejected motions filed by each defense attorney for a change of venue, requests that activists and attorneys for Floyd's family had criticized as attempts to sidestep justice by trying the cases in rural, predominantly white counties. Floyd was Black.
Cahill granted a motion filed by Attorney General Keith Ellison's office to try the defendants — Derek Chauvin, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao — in one trial.
Each defense attorney had argued for individual trials, citing antagonistic defenses that would complicate a joint trial as they blame co-defendants in order to protect their clients.
"Conducting four separate monthlong trials could potentially take a couple of years, delaying justice," Cahill wrote. " … Forcing the community and this State to endure four separate trials … is likely to compound and prolong the trauma to the community and the State."
Cahill issued a slew of other orders that shaped how the March 8 trial will unfold.
He granted defense attorneys' joint request to allow cameras at trial, an unprecedented move.
The judge also ruled that jurors' identities will remain anonymous to the public until after trial, that up to four alternate jurors will be seated instead of the typical one and that jurors will be sequestered during deliberations.
Civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who is representing Floyd's family, issued a statement praising the rulings.
"Trying these officers together will give the jury a complete picture of what happened on the day that George was murdered," Crump said. "The judge's decision to keep the trial in Minneapolis is the right one. We never see Black defendants get a change of venue to increase the fairness of their trials, and the White officers involved in the death of George Floyd should rightly face a jury of their peers in the city where this tragedy took place."
Kueng's attorney, Thomas Plunkett, said in a written statement that he was reviewing the orders.
"My goal is to assure that a fair trial occurs for Mr. Kueng," Plunkett said. "We are happy to have the orders so we can start preparing for our trial and presenting the truth in front of a jury."
Lane's attorney, Earl Gray, declined to comment aside from supporting cameras in the courtroom.
Chauvin's attorney, Eric Nelson, declined to comment. Thao's attorney, Robert Paule, did not return a message seeking comment.
Cahill cited several factors supporting a joint trial: the similarity of the evidence in the four cases, the toll separate trials could take on witnesses, and financial and time constraints on the courts. Finding impartial jurors could become increasingly difficult if separate trials were held, he reasoned, adding that logistical complications imposed by the global COVID-19 pandemic also favored one trial.
Cahill noted that a 17-year-old girl, Darnella Frazier, recorded the incident on her cellphone and will be a key witness along with her 9-year-old cousin, Judeah Reynolds, who was also present. The impact on eyewitnesses has greater import when they are minors, whom the law deems as particularly "vulnerable," he wrote.
Despite defense attorneys' claims, there is no indication that they will use "antagonistic" defenses that require individual trials, the judge wrote.
Cahill said attorneys have voiced similar defenses — that their clients were authorized to use force because Floyd refused to enter a squad car — that contradict the notion of antagonistic defenses.
"In addition, all defendants contend that Floyd's death resulted from his underlying medical conditions, heart disease, and hypertension acting in combination with several drugs found in his system," Cahill wrote.
In ruling against a change of venue, Cahill said the law requires trials to be held in the county where the alleged crime occurred unless specific conditions arise. Each defense attorney asked that the trial be moved, proposing Clay, Dakota and Stearns counties as possible venues, among others.
They argued that media coverage of Floyd's May 25 killing tainted the local jury pool and that Hennepin County is unsafe after protesters allegedly assaulted a lawyer and defendant following a September hearing, and after a protester was allegedly found with a gun and knives in the Hennepin County courthouse following an October hearing. Cahill wrote that smaller courthouses would not improve safety, and that "no corner of the state of Minnesota has been shielded" from coverage of Floyd's death.
He described the ruling as "preliminary" and subject to change pending public opinion surveys being conducted by defense attorneys and pending the results of questionnaires that will be administered to potential jurors in Hennepin County.
Cahill said that while most protesters have been peaceful, defense attorneys' safety concerns were credible and that he had received "many" voice mails, notes and letters from the public "demanding that the Court decide the case in a certain way, most often against the Defendants."
"Most of these communications have been respectful, but more than one message has been hostile and threatening," he wrote.
Cahill also reversed a previous decision banning County Attorney Mike Freeman and three of his attorneys from working on the case. He vacated the ban, allowing them to participate in the prosecution but not as advocates at trial or signees on motions.
Ellison, who is leading the prosecution with assistance from Freeman's office, issued a statement describing Cahill's rulings as "measured and thoughtful."
"I'm satisfied by the court's decisions today," Ellison said. "The murder of George Floyd occurred in Minneapolis, and it is right that the defendants should be tried in Minneapolis. 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."
Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter. Kueng, Lane and Thao are charged with aiding and abetting. All four are free on bond.
Staff writer Rochelle Olson contributed to this report.
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