The judge overseeing the criminal case of four former Minneapolis Police officers charged in the May 25 killing of George Floyd has disqualified Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman and his staff from working on the case.
That news was broken in tweets by WCCO and KARE television reporters covering a hearing Friday at the Hennepin County Family Justice Center. A Star Tribune reporter is covering the hearing from inside the courtroom, where tweets are not allowed.
According to the television reporters covering the hearing from an overflow room, Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill decided to disqualify Freeman and his staff from the case, calling their work “sloppy” because they sent prosecutors to question the medical examiner, making them witnesses in the case.
Cahill presided over a motion hearing that lasted nearly 3½ hours as the attorneys argued over a number of key issues in the case, including whether the trial should be moved out of the county, whether the defendants should be tried in one trial or separately, and how jurors will be selected, among other issues. He has not yet ruled on those motions.
After the hearing, attorneys Thomas Plunkett, Earl Gray walked silently to a truck with with their clients as an angry crowd mobbed them and yelled “murderer.”
Neither attorney commented. Former officer Thomas Lane, who towers above the crowd, did not react or comment as he walked to the truck.
Attorney Robert Paule, who represents former officer Tou Thao, politely declined to comment as he left
After the hearing, attorneys representing Floyd’s family held a press conference.
Ben Crump, a prominent civil rights lawyer, criticized the defense attorneys’ suggestions that Floyd had died of an overdose.
“The only overdoes was an overdose of police force. …The world saw what happened,” Crump said. “Who are you going to believe? Your eyes, or these killer cops?”
Before the hearing, highly organized, peaceful protesters took over the block in front of the heavily fortified Family Justice Center Friday morning.
The group swelled throughout the morning to a peak of several hundred as the hearing began inside and out of sight at 9 a.m. Throughout the morning, they chanted, “indict, convict, send those killer cops to jail. The whole damn system is guilty as hell.”
As the hearing inside continued past noon, the crowd outside thinned out and the mood lifted. A speaker said they were planning to stay until George Floyd’s family members came out so they could show support.
The streets turned into a line dance party, including the Electric Slide.
Earlier, the protesters lay silently on the ground for eight minutes and 46 seconds — the same amount of time Floyd was pinned beneath the knee of former Officer Derek Chauvin in the street outside Cup Foods in south Minneapolis.
As they rose, Marvin Gaye’s emotional voice came direct and clear, “Mother, mother, There’s too many of you crying,” — the first verse from, “What’s going on,” the late singer’s plea for peace, released in 1970.
The crowd occupied much of the S. 4th Street block between Marquette Av. And S. 2nd Street, which was closed to traffic in front of the building that on most days is the site of family court matters such as divorces and custody arrangements. The building was boarded and concrete barriers along with wire fencing were constructed outside the facade. Sheriff’s deputies stood guard in the front and the back.
Attendance at the hearing inside was tightly limited because of the COVID-19 pandemic and protesters could neither see nor hear what was happening inside, but their message was consistent. They opposed defense motions to dismiss the charges against the officers or move the trial to a courthouse outside of Minneapolis.
Elizer Darris of Minneapolis took off his “Breonna Taylor” face mask and encouraged those present to keep up the pressure beyond Friday’s hearing in front of Cahill.
“This isn’t a moment; it’s a movement,” Darris said.
Like all the speakers he called for the trial to be held in Minneapolis — not moved to another courthouse as defense lawyers have sought. “They murdered him here,” Darris said. “We demand justice. This is our pain,” he added. “We will not let you take this dirty laundry to St. Cloud.”
Protest organizers monitored the perimeter of the event, some carrying First Aid supplies, water and food. They coordinated with emergency responders when one man appeared to faint and required medical attention.
As they watched and listened, protesters delivered messages with their signs, including, “No clemency for killer kkkops” and “Recall Freeman,” a reference to County Attorney Mike Freeman, whose office is assisting the Minnesota Attorney General in prosecuting the case.
One woman had reconfigured an image of a blue Minneapolis Police badge to read, “Murderous City of Lakes Police.”
A series of speakers delivered a similar message of persistence against police violence and called for a new, elected community board to reverse police actions. The crowd listened intently, clapping, endorsing and cheering along with each speaker’s comments.
“We have to stop the police from killing us with impunity,” said Jae Yates, who spoke several times.
Throughout the session, protesters called out to the crowd, “Say his name” and the crowd responded, “George Floyd.”
Before they conducted a second 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence, a group leader said they would stay at the site until Floyd family members who attended the hearing emerged so that they could support them.
The officers had to enter and leave the building in the fenced area near the protesters, but they arrived before much of the crowd had gathered.
Chauvin, the only one in custody while awaiting trial, is charged with murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death. Three other officers are accused of aiding and abetting him in Floyd’s death.
Paule, argued in opposition to the prosecution’s motion to try all four of the former officers together, saying that “there are going to be side attacks (from other defense attorneys) that I’m going to have to deal with” if they were tried together.
Paule also countered Special Assistant Attorney General Neal Katyal’s argument that four separate trials would taint future juries.
“I think they would be well advised to look in the mirror about tainting the jury pool,” said Paule, who several times criticized public comments made about the case by Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office and other public officials.
Cahill said it was too early to decide on a change of venue for the trial. He said Hennepin County District Court has been sending questionnaires to potential jurors to complete at home because of COVID risks and for the sake of expediency. But Paule and Keung’s defense attorney, Plunkett, argued that the questionnaires should be completed in person at the courthouse because it carries more weight and meaning. Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank agreed. Cahill said they could start polling potential jurors ahead of the scheduled March 8 trial.
Paule pressed for the change of venue, saying “If I lived in Moorhead I wouldn’t worry about the streets of Moorhead being burned” following a trial.
“There really isn’t a county, would you agree, or a state in this country where there hasn’t been a lot of publicity about George Floyd’s death?” Cahill countered.
Attorneys for each defendant have filed pending motions to dismiss the charges against their clients, but those matters were not expected to be argued Friday because the judge will decide based on written filings. Prosecutors oppose dismissing the cases.
Judges generally take such matters “under advisement” for several days or weeks before issuing a written decision, although they might rule on some matters immediately and wait on others.
The hearing is the first time Chauvinhas appeared in-person in the case. He is being held at the state prison at Oak Park Heights, and previously appeared for court hearings from the prison via video conference. Chauvin is charged with one count each of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
His former colleagues — J. Alexander Kueng, Lane and Thao — each are charged with aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter. They have posted bonds, and are out-of-custody.
Each defense attorney filed motions to move the trial out of the county due to media exposure they fear has tainted the jury pool, among other concerns.
A change of venue is typically difficult to achieve.
Cahill on Friday also is considering procedural issues, such as how to hold a trial with pandemic protocols, the expected length of the trial, and other issues. Some of Floyd’s relatives attended.
Prosecutors, led by Ellison’s office, have filed the following motions:
• A request to try all four defendants at one trial, scheduled for March 8. They argued that the evidence against the four is similar, that witnesses and family members “are likely to be traumatized by multiple trials” and that the “interests of justice” necessitate one trial.
Each defense attorney has opposed the motion and requested individual trials for their clients.
• An intent to submit “aggravating factors” to the court to support higher-than-recommended prison terms if the defendants are convicted. Prosecutors argued in court filings that Floyd was “particularly vulnerable” because his hands were cuffed behind his back. They say he was treated with “particular cruelty.” And they say the officers abused their authority, acted as a group, and did so in front of children.
• A motion to compel both sides to initially disclose their expert witnesses and resumes by Dec. 8, and to provide related information, such as their reports and findings, by Jan. 8.
Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, filed the following motions and notices:
• A motion to dismiss the charges. Nelson argued that Chauvin “exuded a calm and professional demeanor” with Floyd. “Chauvin was clearly being cautious about the amount of pressure he used to restrain Mr. Floyd — cautious enough to prevent bruising,” Nelson wrote. He argued that Floyd died from chronic health issues and drug abuse.
• A request to move the trial out of the “Twin Cities area” due to an “excessive amount of pretrial publicity.”
• An intent to admit evidence about Floyd’s alleged involvement in two drug cases: a 2019 case in Minneapolis and a 2007 case in Texas. The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office has said no cases against Floyd in any matter have ever been presented for prosecution.
• Motions requiring law enforcement agencies to disclose files related to Floyd’s alleged “cooperation as an informant;” any information about whether Floyd had gang affiliations; and the release of other data.
• A motion disqualifying the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office from assisting in the prosecution. The office initially led the investigation, which was soon taken over by Ellison’s office with help from the county attorney.
Nelson argued that county prosecutors had engaged in an “inappropriate, pretrial publicity campaign, including the leaking of specific, detailed information regarding a potential plea agreement to the media.”
Plunkett, filed the following motions and notices:
• A motion to dismiss the case. Plunkett argued that the restraint Chauvin used was “reasonable” and that there’s no evidence that Kueng knew Chauvin was going to commit a crime.
• A motion to move the trial outside of the seven-county metro area, with Stearns County as a possible replacement.
• Like Nelson, his intent to admit evidence of Floyd’s alleged involvement in the two drug cases from 2019 and 2007, cited above.
Earl Gray, who is representing Lane, filed the following motions:
• A motion to dismiss the case. Gray argued that Floyd was moving in the car as the officers approached, that he didn’t initially obey orders to show both hands and that he resisted getting into a squad car.
• A motion to move the trial to either Dakota County or Washington County.
Paule, filed the following motions:
• A motion to dismiss the case, arguing that Thao never touched Floyd and was focused on crowd control, so he didn’t have a full view of what was happening as his colleagues restrained Floyd.
• A motion for disclosure of all medical reports related to three different autopsies and medical examinations performed in the case.
• A motion to keep the names of potential jurors anonymous during jury selection, and to sequester the jury that is chosen.
• A motion to disclose Chauvin’s disciplinary records, files about Floyd’s alleged cooperation as an informant with law enforcement; and information about a 2019 drug case in Minneapolis allegedly involving Floyd.
• A motion to move the trial to St. Louis County, Clay County or Crow Wing County.