Judge warns of possible move of trial in Floyd killing

A man stands in front of a microphone surrounded by media.
Robert Paule, attorney for former police officer Tou Thao, leaves the Public Facility Building Monday. Paule accused elected officials of trying to sway the outcome of the trial by making public statements about the case.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Updated: 4:32 p.m.

The Hennepin County judge overseeing the trial of four former police officers charged in the killing of George Floyd last month warned elected officials against making public statements about the merits of the case, saying they endanger the defendants’ right to a fair trial and could lead to a change in venue.

Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill stopped short of issuing a gag order on attorneys, but he said one is likely if public statements continue.

“The court is not going to be happy about hearing comments on these three areas: merits, evidence and guilt or innocence,” Cahill said.

Four former Minneapolis police officers charged in the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd — Derek Chauvin, Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane — appeared before Cahill Monday afternoon in a courtroom at the Hennepin County Jail in downtown Minneapolis.

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Chauvin — who was captured on video with his knee on Floyd's neck for nearly eight minutes on a south Minneapolis street on Memorial Day — is charged with murder. The other officers are accused of aiding and abetting murder.

The four have not yet entered pleas. But in a court filing, Kueng says he plans to plead not guilty and argue at trial that he used reasonable force while detaining Floyd.

Chauvin remains in custody on $1 million bail and Thao is being held on $750,000 bail. Lane and Kueng are free on bond. During pretrial hearings in criminal cases, the parties may argue motions, outline how the two sides will share evidence and set future court dates.

The trial for the four former officers has been set tentatively for March 8.

Four former Minneapolis police officers charged in George Floyd case.
From left: Derek Chauvin, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao. Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder of George Floyd, a black man who died after being restrained by the Minneapolis police officers on May 25. The other three are charged with aiding and abetting Chauvin.
Hennepin County Sheriff's Office via AP

Defense attorneys have argued that public statements by elected officials could undermine the defendant’s right to a fair trial. Cahill said the public comments could provide grounds for moving the trial outside of Hennepin County and warned Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank that officials need to refrain from commenting.

Defense attorneys for Chauvin, Kueng, Lane and Thao made the rare move Friday of consenting to electronic media coverage of the hearings, which the judge initially denied. Their defendants’ attorneys said state and local officials have made inappropriate comments about the cases, and that cameras are necessary to "let a cleansing light shine on these proceedings."

But in Minnesota, both parties must typically consent to having any preconviction hearings televised — and prosecutors did not give consent. In denying the request from media organizations, including MPR News, Cahill said audio and video coverage would violate court rules and risk tainting a potential jury pool. Cahill said he'll decide later on coverage of the trial itself.

Attorneys for the defendants renewed their request in a filing Sunday night, arguing that balanced media coverage of pretrial and trial hearings will help counter statements from state officials about the officers’ guilt.

After Monday’s hearing, Thao’s attorney Robert Paule accused elected officials of trying to sway the outcome of the trial by making public statements about the case, and said he finds it “ironic” that the Office of the Attorney General doesn’t want cameras in the courtroom.

Floyd’s aunt and uncle on his mother’s side attended Monday’s hearing. His aunt, Angela Harrelson, who lives in the Twin Cities, said the family is grieving, but focused on “continuing to fight for George.”

Lane’s attorney has argued that charges against the rookie cop should be dismissed because Lane asked Chauvin repeatedly if Floyd shouldn’t be rolled onto his side.

Floyd’s uncle Selwyn Jones said he’s “not mad at anyone” but feels all four officers involved share responsibility for the death of his nephew.

“I just think we need to fix the system, racism needs to go, police brutality definitely needs to go,” Jones said after the hearing. “And we need to find some kind of equality and care for each other.”

Floyd’s killing sparked protests across the world and riots in the Twin Cities. It’s also led to calls to defund police departments. The Minneapolis City Council is taking steps that they say would allow them to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.