MINNEAPOLIS – A former Minneapolis police officer who kept his knee against George Floyd’s neck for minutes will be tried separately from the three other former officers charged in his death, according to a statement filed Tuesday citing limited space in the courtroom due to of COVID-19 restrictions.
Derek Chauvin will stand alone in the trial in March, while the other three former officers will be tried together in the summer. In his ruling, Judge Peter Cahill cited the physical space constraints during the coronavirus pandemic, saying it was “impossible to comply with COVID-19 physical constraints” given how many attorneys and support staff the four defendants say would be present.
Prosecutors disagreed with the judge̵
Legal observers say the change benefits Chauvin’s co-defendant, who gets a preview of what state witnesses will say and more time to prepare. They will also blame Chauvin, who will not stand trial with them for pushing back.
Last week, prosecutors asked Cahill to postpone the trial from March 8 to June 7 to reduce the public health risks associated with COVID-19. In his Monday ruling, handed down Tuesday, the judge wrote that while the pandemic situation may improve sharply in June, “the Court is not so optimistic given news reports describing problems with the rollout of the vaccine.”
Cahill’s order contained an email from Hennepin County Chief Judge Toddrick Barnette requesting that the trials be separated in a manner that Cahill considered fair, after being told that each defendant planned to have counsel or legal assistance. in court. Barnette wrote that he looked at the configuration of the courtroom and concluded that social distancing could not be enforced in that room with so many people. Barnette wrote that he believed the courtroom could handle up to three defendants at once.
Floyd, a black man, died on May 25 after Chauvin, who is white, pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck while being handcuffed with his face down the street. Police are investigating whether Floyd used a counterfeit bill at a nearby store. In a video widely viewed on social media, Floyd could be heard asking officers for air and saying he could not breathe.
Floyd’s death sparked protests in Minneapolis and elsewhere and renewed calls for an end to police brutality and racial inequalities.
Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder and second-degree murder in Floyd’s death. Former officers Lane, Tou Thao and J. Alexander Kueng are each charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and aiding and abetting second-degree murder.
Defense attorneys had argued last year that officers should be tried separately, but prosecutors argued against it.
Attorney Keith Ellison, whose office is prosecuting the case, said Tuesday that he disagrees with Cahill’s decision to separate the cases and hold Chauvin in March.
“The evidence against each defendant is the same, and multiple lawsuits can revitalize eyewitnesses and family members and unnecessarily burden the state and the court, while risking damaging the subsequent jury pools,” Ellison said in a statement. “It is also clear that COVID-19 will still be a serious threat to public health in 8 weeks. … Nevertheless, we are fully prepared and look forward to presenting our case to a jury when the Court deems it appropriate. ”
Lane’s attorney, Earl Gray, said he thinks it’s better for his client to have a lawsuit separate from Chauvin.
“In a joint attempt, there is always a spillover effect, no matter what. You know that a jury has to consider each client separately, but it’s hard for anyone to do – common sense tells you so, ”said Gray.
Lawyers for Kueng and Chauvin had no comments. Thao’s lawyer did not return a message requesting comment.
Mike Brandt, a criminal defense attorney unrelated to the case, said the decision would benefit Chauvin’s co-defendants because they get a preview of state witnesses and they can hone their strategies. They also want testimonials, which can be “powerful” if a witness changes his story during the second trial.
In addition, he said all three officers can point fingers at Chauvin, who will not be in the same trial to defend himself.
If Chauvin is acquitted, Brandt said, the other three officers could still be tried to help count, but the case would be more difficult. Brandt said it is difficult for prosecutors to prove a case against those who can be considered less guilty if they cannot convict the alleged lead actor.
Brandt also said it is unlikely the three officers would testify against Chauvin during his trial because they have a fifth right of amendment against self-incrimination. Although prosecutors would offer them immunity, officers could still face federal charges of violating Floyd’s civil rights – and immunity offered by the state would not apply in federal court.
Brandt said that while prosecutors are likely to have the other officers testify against Chauvin, it is highly unlikely that they will offer immunity in this case.
“I expect it to be all or nothing. I do not think they will make offers to anyone because of the high profile, ”he said. “If this was a gang-murder, would they enter into agreements with the less guilty? You can believe it. But it’s police officers. ”
Thao, Kueng and Lane are scheduled for trial on August 23.
Associated Press author Gretchen Ehlke of Milwaukee contributed to this report.