Judge in Floyd case issues number of orders, including ruling on joint trial, change of venue

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Wednesday, Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill issued a number of orders in the case against the four former officers charged in the death of George Floyd.

In one of the orders, Cahill granted a joint trial for Derek Chauvin, Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng.

The trial is set for March 8, 2021.

The judge also issued a preliminary order denying a change of venue for the trial.

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In his ruling, Cahill said, “Because of that pervasive media coverage, a change of venue is unlikely to cure the taint of potentially prejudicial pretrial publicity.”

Because it is a preliminary order, the court can reconsider “as the case develops if circumstances warrant.”

Cahill ruled after defense attorneys had argued that pretrial publicity had made it impossible for the four men to get a fair trial in Minneapolis. They also cited a Sept. 11 hearing in which the men and their attorneys were confronted by angry protesters outside the courthouse, raising safety issues. Defense lawyers argued that witnesses could be intimidated, and jurors could be affected by chants from a crowd outside.

But Cahill said he was not convinced that moving the trial would improve security, and that he believes the jury can be protected from outside influences.

"No corner of the State of Minnesota has been shielded from pretrial publicity regarding the death of George Floyd," he wrote.

Cahill said he was willing to revisit the issue if circumstances warrant. Moving the trial away from Minneapolis to a less diverse area also likely would affect the makeup of the jury, though the judge didn’t address that issue. In a separate order, however, he said the names of the jurors will be kept confidential, and that jurors will be fully sequestered during deliberations and escorted to the courthouse as a group.

The judge also ruled that the trial can be televised and streamed live, saying cameras will ensure the defendants’ right to a public trial and the public’s right to access during this time when spacing restrictions due to COVID-19 leave little to no room for spectators.

Defense attorneys also argued that the men should face separate trials, as each officer tried to diminish his own role in Floyd’s arrest by pointing fingers at the others. But Cahill rejected that too, saying the complications of separate trials were too great and that trying the officers together would "ensure that the jury understands … all of the evidence and the complete picture of Floyd’s death.

"And it would allow this community, this State and the nation to absorb the verdicts for the four defendants at once," he concluded. Cahill said the critical evidence is the same for all men, and one trial would keep witnesses from having to testify multiple times.

Thomas Plunkett, Kueng’s attorney, said in a statement that he is reviewing Cahill’s orders. "My goal is to assure that a fair trial occurs for Mr. Kueng. We are happy to have the orders so we can start preparing for our trial and presenting the truth in front of a jury," he said.

Defense attorneys for Chauvin and Lane had no comment on the judge’s rulings. Thao’s attorney did not return messages seeking comment.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison issued the following statement regarding the orders:

"I’m satisfied by the court’s decisions today. 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.

“These rulings reflect a measured and thoughtful application of the law. Taken with recent ruling sustaining almost all of the original charges against the defendants, including the most serious, the rulings today represent another significant step forward in the pursuit of justice for George Floyd and for our community.”

Floyd family Attorney’s Ben Crump and Antonio Romanucci the following statement:

"We applaud Judge Cahill’s decision today to keep the trial of the officers involved in George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis and to try all of the former officers together. Trying these officers together will give the jury a complete picture of what happened on the day that George was murdered. Each of these men played a role that ultimately led to his death- whether it was a knee to the neck or denying any intervention as George and onlookers begged for his life.

"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."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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