Prosecutors seek to try officers accused of killing Floyd together in summer

A man with a black mask walks out of revolving doors.
Attorney Eric Nelson, representing Derek Chauvin, leaves the Hennepin County Courthouse after a hearing in Minneapolis on Oct. 15, 2020.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2020

State prosecutors are enlisting the help of a prominent Minnesota epidemiologist as they seek to recombine the trials of four former Minneapolis police officers charged in the killing of George Floyd and delay the proceedings until summer.

In a filing on Tuesday, prosecutors from Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office argued that the judge was wrong to sever the cases after his previous decision to try them together. Prosecutors also say a March trial presents a public health danger.

Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank’s arguments were backed up by an affidavit from Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota and member of President-elect Joe Biden's 16-member coronavirus advisory board.

“Two trials means roughly twice the number of trial dates, and so twice the risk and twice the potential exposure to COVID-19, both for in-court participants as well as people outside the courtroom, including safety personnel, media and demonstrators,” Osterholm said. “This risk is especially high in light of the new, more transmissible variant of the coronavirus.”

Osterholm said the spread of the new variant makes it likely that at least one or more of the trial participants would be sickened by COVID-19 in March, and he warned that a spring trial could become a “superspreader” event. He said it would be much safer to hold one trial in August when more people are vaccinated.

Defense attorneys have not yet responded to the motion by the prosecution.

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Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill ruled a week ago that the four officers charged in Floyd’s May 25 killing should be tried in two separate trials due to COVID-19 restrictions. Under the judge’s order, former officer Derek Chauvin goes on trial March 8, and the three other defendants are scheduled for trial in August.

Earlier this month, defense attorneys told Hennepin County Chief Judge Toddrick Barnette that they planned to bring legal assistants to the trial. Cahill said in his order that the physical limitations of the courtroom “make it impossible to comply with COVID-19 physical restrictions in a joint trial.”

It was a reversal of a November decision by Cahill that all four defendants should stand trial together. He wrote that the evidence in each case was similar and that a joint trial “would allow the community, this state, and the nation to absorb the verdicts for the four defendants at once.”

Four former Minneapolis police officers charged in George Floyd case.
From left: Derek Chauvin, J. Alexander Kueng,Thomas Lane and Tou Thao.
Hennepin County Sheriff's Office via AP

Chauvin is charged with murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s killing in south Minneapolis.

Three other former officers, Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng, are charged with aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter.

Floyd’s killing set off demonstrations across the country and civil unrest in the Twin Cities, including looting and arson that damaged hundreds of buildings in Minneapolis and St. Paul.