Judge lifts gag order in Floyd case

Three men walk in suits and masks.
From left, attorney Earl Gray, former Minneapolis police officers Thomas Lane and Derek Chauvin's attorney Eric Nelson leave the Hennepin County Courthouse after a motion hearing on Tuesday. A coalition of media organizations and attorneys for Lane, Chauvin and other two officers charged in the Memorial Day killing George Floyd argued to lift the gag order.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Updated: 7:45 p.m.

A Hennepin County District Court judge on Tuesday lifted his gag order in the case of four officers charged in the killing of George Floyd.

Judge Peter Cahill imposed the gag order on attorneys and others earlier this month, writing that pretrial publicity would taint the jury pool and could result in an unfair trial.

A coalition of media organizations and attorneys for the defendants opposed the order. 

The media coalition, which includes MPR News, argued that the gag order didn’t specifically define who is covered, and could apply to people who are only tangentially related to the case, such as experts in police tactics or social movements. 

Defense lawyers contended their inability to speak publicly prevented them from countering an emerging worldwide narrative about Floyd’s death.

A group of people wearing face masks.
Former Minneapolis police officer Tou Thao is flanked by his attorneys as he arrives at the Hennepin County Courthouse before a motions hearing in Minneapolis on Tuesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Even though he was lifting the gag order, Cahill told attorneys they’d still be required to the follow ethical rules in what they discuss publicly. Cahill warned that evidence obtained through discovery could not be shared with journalists or members of the public.

The in-custody death of Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was captured on video by a bystander, sparking protests throughout the country and civil unrest in the Twin Cities.

Former officer Derek Chauvin, who knelt on Floyd’s neck for several minutes, faces murder and manslaughter charges and appeared via Zoom from Oak Park Heights prison. Former officers Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao are charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. They sat in the back row of the jury box throughout the hearing.

Defense attorneys made no statements after the hearing despite the gag order being lifted.

Cahill did not immediately rule on another request brought by the media coalition, to release police body camera footage.

Ballard Spahr Attorney Leita Walker, who represented the media coalition, argued that bystander footage of Floyd’s death and transcripts of the body camera footage have already been widely distributed. She said the only way to preserve a fair trial is not to release the evidence “piecemeal.”

Walker told the judge that if he shuts down the press and public’s ability to observe a high-profile trial, “people lose faith in the judicial system.”

That motion was supported in Tuesday’s hearing by Earl Gray, the attorney representing Lane, argued that the video footage should be released, saying that “the media is substantially unfair against my client.”

Gray alleged in court that media reports could have benefit from his analysis of the body camera footage, which he said showed Floyd stuffing counterfeit bills into the vehicle’s seat and drugs into this mouth that Gray speculated were “probably what killed him.”

The video evidence was filed along with a motion by Lane to dismiss charges against him. It is available for viewing — but not recording or distribution — by appointment.

Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank accused Gray of “trying the case in the media.”

“What we don’t want is repeated motions with exhibits so that more is leaked out to the press,” Frank said.

Cahill said he expected to issue a ruling soon on public access to evidence. He also asked prosecutors to take a position on whether should be audio and video coverage of the actual trial, which all four defense attorneys support.

”The court has a concern about the right to a public trial in the age of COVID,” Cahill told attorneys.

The courtroom on Tuesday accommodated just six reporters; court staff and attorneys were spaced out as well, with plexiglass dividers between them. Meanwhile, dozens of photojournalists and television anchors waited in the lobby downstairs. 

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