Former prosecutors call judge’s disqualification of county attorney ‘highly unusual’

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Two former federal prosecutors in Minnesota said they were surprised by a judge’s decision to disqualify Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman from the prosecution of the former Minneapolis police officers charged in the killing of George Floyd.

On Friday, Judge Peter Cahill said Freeman’s office was "sloppy" by not having a third-party present during a private meeting with the Hennepin County Medical Examiner in the days after Floyd’s death at the end of May.

The judge granted a defense motion to disqualify Freeman and three top lawyers at his office who were present during the meeting.

In a statement released Friday afternoon, the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office said Judge Cahill had agreed to reconsider his ruling.

"Any suggestion by Judge Cahill that the work of Sweasy and Lofton was sloppy is incorrect. The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office fully stands by the work, dedication and commitment of two of the state’s best prosecutors," the statement said.

Hennepin County Attorney’s Office has confidence recent orders in Floyd case will be withdrawn or modified

Former U.S. Attorney and St. Thomas professor Rachel Paulose called the judge’s choice of words "unfortunate" and described his ruling as "unusual" but also said not having someone from outside the County Attorney’s office to observe a meeting with the medical examiner went against "best practices."

"It’s not best practice to have an attorney questioning a potential trial witness without a third party witness or an investigator… there to record and document the conversation," Paulose said.

She added that the disqualification, if it stands, would not be catastrophic to the prosecution’s case because the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office is so large and the fact that the case is already being led by the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office.

Another former U.S. Attorney, Tom Heffelfinger agreed that the judge’s ruling was unusual, but he suggested the prosecution could feel the impact of such a ruling if it stands.

Read KSTP’s full George Floyd coverage

"It’s a significant impact," Heffelfinger said. "The Attorney General kept the County Attorney’s Office involved for a reason. … It was not done for politics."

"It’s not unusual to have attorneys meet with a medical examiner in a potential homicide case," Heffelfinger added.

While the judge has not yet ruled on defense motions to hold separate trials for the four former officers or to move the trial out of Hennepin County, Paulose says neither motion is likely to be granted.

"There is a real interest that the citizens of Hennepin County have in trying this case in the jurisdiction in which the (alleged crime) occurred," Paulose said. "I’m sure that everyone, including this judge, is well aware that this case could define her or his career and that every I need to be dotted and every T needs to be crossed. Literally the whole world is watching."