A federal civil rights trial for the four former Minneapolis police officers indicted in connection to George Floyd's killing is on track to begin in January.
No official start date has been set, but on Nov. 18, U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson mailed out jury questionnaires ordering prospective jurors to report to the courthouse on Jan. 20 for what promises to be another grueling selection process. The trial for Derek Chauvin, J. Alexander Kueng, Tou Thao and Thomas Lane will run from "mid-January to mid-February," Magnuson said, according to a copy of the summons packet obtained by the Star Tribune.
This timeline gives the court a short window to resolve lingering issues ahead of the trial. Chief among them: Will Chauvin — who has already been convicted of murder in a highly publicized state trial — be tried alongside the three other defendants?
A magistrate judge ruled this week they should. But lawyers for the other three have argued that Chauvin must be severed from the case to give their clients a fair trial, and the attorneys could still ask Magnuson for an independent ruling on the issue.
The unofficial start date also puts Minnesota on course once more for a prolonged burst of national attention over police use of deadly force that may not end until spring. Jury selection started this week for the manslaughter trial of former Brooklyn Center officer Kimberly Potter — a case that is expected to end around Christmas — giving the Twin Cities just a few weeks of reprieve until the federal trial. A state trial for Kueng, Thao and Lane is on the docket for early March, a few weeks after Magnuson's estimated completion date for the federal trial.
Chauvin, Lane, Kueng and Thao all face Justice Department charges of abusing their positions as police officers to deprive Floyd of his constitutional rights to be "free from the use of unreasonable force" when Chauvin pinned Floyd down for more than nine minutes, and the others did not intervene. "This offense resulted in bodily injury to, and the death of George Floyd," the charges state.
All four have pleaded not guilty to the civil rights charges.
Floyd's killing has become a cultural touchstone in the debate over American policing in the past 18 months, igniting protests and riots across the world. This, plus the livestreamed trial for Chauvin, present a difficult path for the court in securing jurors who haven't already made up their minds about the officers, and Magnuson's questionnaire is the first step in culling the pool.
"In trials of this nature, the Court and the attorneys need to ask probing questions of prospective jurors, including questions about their views on law enforcement, various interest groups, and events that have taken place over the past year-and-a-half," writes Magnuson in the letter. "We do this not because we wish to pry into the private lives of prospective jurors, but because we are obligated to ensure that the jurors who hear the case will be fair and impartial."
The answers to the questions will be under seal from the public, but available to the judge and attorneys on both sides to be used for in-person selection.
Magnuson also asks those responding to the questionnaire to avoid media coverage related to the case. "From this day forward, DO NOT read or intentionally view anything about these events or this case or do any investigation or research related to these events or this case."
No date is set for opening arguments. In Chauvin's trial earlier this year, the court took about two weeks — an abnormally long period of time compared to most trials — to whittle the pool from 300 to 12 and some alternates.
Questions in Magnuson's 15-page survey address what potential jurors know about Chauvin's past trial. Did they watch it? Have they seen the viral video of the officers detaining Floyd? Do they have impressions of the officers already? What about the Minneapolis Police Department — or police in general?
Other questions explore the relationships with prospective jurors to the criminal justice system, including whether they, or friends or family, have worked in law enforcement or been the victim, witness or alleged perpetrator of a crime. If they have called 911 or been pulled over, the questionnaire asks how the experience left them feeling. Should there be greater police accountability or reform? Have they participated in any protests or other civil disobedience over the past two years? Are they aware of the protests that have taken place in Minnesota and around the country related to police? What do they think of Black Lives Matter? Blue Lives Matter?
One question asks about perception of violent crime. Others focus on martial arts or wrestling training and whether they or family members work in the field of healthcare. Have they ever been restrained or placed in a chokehold, or trained to perform such a maneuver?
It also asks jurors if they have views on race or addiction that would make them unable to weigh evidence objectively.