Updated: 3:50 p.m.
The trial of the four former officers charged in George Floyd’s killing will stay in Minneapolis for now. In an order released Thursday morning, Judge Peter Cahill denied defense attorneys’ request to move the trial.
In a number of other rulings Thursday, Cahill also joined the trials of the four officers together, outlined a plan for keeping jurors anonymous and partially sequestered during the trial and announced that he will allow the trial to be livestreamed.
Defense attorneys for the former officers had argued that the trial should be moved, pointing to protesters who harassed attorneys and defendants following previous hearings. While Cahill said he finds those safety concerns credible, he said they don’t support a change of venue but “better safety planning.”
“Moving venue to a smaller county will not assuage the defendants’ security concerns but instead is likely to heighten those concerns because the relevant courthouse would certainly be smaller than the Hennepin County Government Center,” Cahill said.
Defense attorneys had also argued that pretrial publicity may have caused potential jurors to be biased. But Cahill said “no corner of the state of Minnesota has been shielded from pretrial publicity regarding the death of George Floyd,” and that moving the trial likely wouldn’t make a difference. Cahill said he's willing to reconsider as the case develops.
Floyd’s family and many supporters opposed moving the trial to less diverse counties in other parts of the state.
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Rachel Paulose, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas and a former U.S. attorney for Minnesota, said defendants these days need to find a better argument.
“Massive pretrial publicity is no longer a compelling factor to move a trial in the age of the internet,” said Paulose, who is not involved with the case. “That argument may have been compelling 50 years ago — it is not today.”
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office is leading the prosecution, said Thursday that he was satisfied with the judge’s decisions.
“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,” Ellison said.
“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.”
The court is planning to contact jurors earlier than usual so they can fill out questionnaires about how much they know about the case.
Cahill also ruled that the four officers should stand trial together. Defense attorneys had argued that the officers’ defenses would require them to blame one another for Floyd’s killing. But in a 51-page order, Cahill ruled that the former officers should stand trial together because they’re all claiming that Floyd was resisting their orders and that their use of force was reasonable.
The judge also said joining the defendants together is appropriate because the charges and evidence in each case are similar. He said holding four separate trials would put a burden on witnesses and the court system.
“Trying these cases jointly would ensure that the jury understands ... all of the evidence and the complete picture of Floyd’s death,” Cahill wrote. “And it would allow the community, this state, and the nation to absorb the verdicts for the four defendants at once.”
The judge also outlined his plan to keep jurors safe from outside influence during the trial. He plans to keep jurors’ names secret during trial and provide them with a law enforcement escort to court each day from an undisclosed location. Cahill is also planning to sequester jurors during deliberations.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions on public and media access, the judge has also announced that he plans to allow video and audio streaming of the trial, a rarity for Minnesota. Recording devices are usually not allowed in state courtrooms. But Cahill said following the standard court rules would mean the public would likely see nothing but attorneys’ arguments. He said allowing more access allows the public to see that the defendants are treated fairly and not “unjustly condemned.”
Floyd died on May 25 in south Minneapolis after Chauvin knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes. Floyd’s killing spurred protests, rioting and civil unrest in the Twin Cities.
Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao are charged with aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter.
The trial is set to begin in March.