A closed hearing in the federal trial of three former Minneapolis police officers in George Floyd’s killing was canceled Friday after prosecutors and the media objected, the second time in just days that access to the proceedings became an issue.
U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson scheduled the conference on the admissibility of some evidence that attorneys for Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane sought to block. After prosecutors and news media objected, Magnuson canceled the hearing and met with attorneys in chambers instead.
No details of the meeting were immediately released.
Opening statements are set for Monday in the trial of the three officers, who are broadly charged in federal court with depriving Floyd of his civil rights while acting under government authority as Derek Chauvin used his knee to pin the Black man to the street for 9½ minutes on May 25, 2020. The videotaped killing triggered worldwide protests, violence and a reexamination of racism and policing.
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Media groups earlier this week raised concerns about restrictions on journalists and spectators in the courtroom. Magnuson, citing the coronavirus pandemic, initially set aside just two seats for reporters and none for family members during jury selection, which was completed in one day. He raised that to four seats for reporters during jury selection — the same as planned for the trial phase — but rejected other media requests, including sharing of evidence exhibits.
Leita Walker, an attorney for the media groups, said she was “concerned that the court purported to cancel an evidentiary hearing but went forward with a meeting and we don’t know what happened at that meeting.”
The original hearing was set to deal with defense motions to exclude certain evidence, including still images from videos the day of Floyd’s death; side-by-side exhibits that will play two videos at once; and dispatch and 911 calls, according to a filing late Thursday from prosecutors objecting to Friday's closure.
On Thursday, a jury of 18 people who appeared mostly white was picked for the trial, in contrast to the state court jury that convicted Chauvin of murder and manslaughter last April, a panel that was half nonwhite. This group appears to include a woman of Asian descent among the 12 jurors, and a man of Asian descent among the six alternates. The court declined to provide demographic information.
In objecting to the closure of Friday's hearing, prosecutors had said neither side had requested the closure.
Walker followed up Friday morning for a coalition of media organizations, including The Associated Press, with the group's request to the judge to open the proceeding. She wrote that excluding the press and public from an evidentiary hearing amounted to “a closure of the courtroom that violates the First Amendment.”
“Presumably the Court is concerned about publicity surrounding inadmissible evidence. But it is a standard practice to instruct jury members not to listen to or read news reports on the case they are considering" to avoid the outside influence, Walker wrote.
Magnuson specifically admonished the jurors before he sent them home Thursday evening to avoid media coverage of the proceedings.
Walker wrote that many, and perhaps all, of the jurors were already familiar with the events, including Chauvin's murder conviction and guilty plea to federal civil rights charges last month. The judge in Chauvin's murder trial made an exception to Minnesota's normal limits on audiovisual coverage, citing the need for public access during the pandemic, and the livestreamed proceedings drew a large audience.
Thao, Kueng and Lane also face a separate state court trial June 13, on charges of aiding and abetting both murder and manslaughter.