A Minnesota judge on Monday warned that he’s likely to move the trials of four former police officers charged in George Floyd’s death out of Minneapolis if public officials, attorneys and family members don’t stop speaking out about the case.
Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill stopped short of issuing a gag order against attorneys on both sides, but he said he likely will if public statements continue that make it hard to find an impartial jury. Cahill said that would also make him likely to grant a change-of-venue motion if one is filed, as he anticipates.
“The court is not going to be happy about hearing comments on these three areas: merits, evidence and guilt or innocence,” Cahill said.
It was the second pretrial hearing for the officers, who were fired after Floyd's May 25 death. Derek Chauvin, 44, is charged with second-degree murder and other counts, while Thomas Lane, 37, J. Kueng, 26, and Tou Thao, 34, are charged with aiding and abetting Chauvin.
Floyd died after Chauvin, a white police officer, pressed his knee against the handcuffed 46-year-old Black man's neck for nearly eight minutes. The officers were responding to a call about a man trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill at a nearby store. Floyd's death sparked protests around the world.
Thao's attorney, Robert Paule, cited remarks from a variety of public officials saying they thought the officers were guilty, including President Donald Trump, Attorney General Keith Ellison and Mayor Jacob Frey. Police Chief Medaria Arradondo has called Floyd's death "murder" and said Chauvin knew what he was doing because of his training. Gov. Tim Walz and Frey have also called it murder.
Cahill asked Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank to use his influence to keep public officials silent, warning that if they continue to discuss it publicly, he likely would “have to pull (the trials) out of Hennepin County and they need to be aware of that.” But he also made it clear that he wants defense attorneys and Floyd family members to stay out of the press, too.
Cahill set a March 8 trial date for the former officers if they are tried together, though he said he expects motions to be filed to separate their trials. If they’re tried separately, those still in custody — currently Chauvin and Thao — would most likely go first. The next court date is Sept. 11.
The defendants have not entered pleas. Chauvin’s attorney has not commented publicly on the charges, while Lane’s and Kueng’s attorneys have sought to minimize their clients’ roles and deflect blame to the more senior Chauvin in Floyd’s death. Kueng’s attorney said in a court filing Monday that he intends to plead not guilty and that he will argue it was self-defense, a reasonable use of force and an authorized use of force.
Chauvin remains in custody on $1 million bail, and Thao is being held on $750,000 bail. Lane and Kueng are free on bond.
Cahill rejected a defense request to reconsider his earlier decision to prohibit cameras in the courtroom during pretrial proceedings. Defense attorneys asked for the cameras, saying it would help balance what the public has heard about the case, but prosecutors objected. The judge has not ruled on whether to allow cameras for the trial itself but has said he is open to it.
The charges against Chauvin are unintentional second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Second-degree murder carries a maximum penalty of 40 years in prison, third-degree murder carries up to 25 years and manslaughter up to 10.
The other three former officers are charged with aiding and abetting both second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Those charges are legally tantamount to the counts against Chauvin and carry the same penalties.
After the hearings, Selwyn Jones, Floyd’s uncle, said he found it “totally hideous” that Lane and Kueng made bail, while “my nephew will never have a chance to be free ever again. ... I’m not mad at anybody, I just think we need to fix the system. Racism needs to go, police brutality definitely needs to go, and we need to find some kind of equality and care for each other.”