$27 million settlement clouds jury selection in Chauvin case

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Rochelle Olson, Paul Walsh, Star Tribune
·5 min read
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The $27 million record-setting civil settlement between Minneapolis and the family of George Floyd weighed heavily in Hennepin County District Court on Tuesday, bogging down attempts to seat a jury to hear the murder and manslaughter case against former police officer Derek Chauvin.

None of the seven potential jurors questioned Tuesday were seated. Judge Peter Cahill struck five of the candidates for bias or because they said serving would create a hardship, and defense attorney Eric Nelson used his strikes on the other two. Nelson has used 11 of his 15 strikes. Nine jurors have been seated with 14 needed for trial, including two alternates. Prosecutors have five strikes remaining.

Cahill again dealt Wednesday with the pretrial fallout from the settlement. The judge said he would recall the seven jurors seated before Friday's announcement to question them about their knowledge of the settlement. He is also expected to rule on defense requests to either move the trial or delay opening statements scheduled for March 29. The prosecution opposes both.

Both Cahill and Nelson expressed exasperation with city leaders' decision to announce the settlement on Friday just blocks from the courthouse where they are trying to seat the jury.

Nelson said his client's right to a fair trial is at risk. "You have elected officials- the governor, the mayor, making incredibly prejudicial statements about my client," he said.

Cahill denied Nelson's request for more defense strikes of prospective jurors, but was particularly irked by an unnamed city official's assertion to the Washington Post that Hennepin County Chief Judge Toddrick Barnette said the announcement of the settlement could proceed.

But in court, Cahill called that "not an accurate statement" and noted the settlement came out of a federal claim and didn't involve state courts.

"As I recall in my discussions with Judge Barnette, the answer was 'We can't tell you what to do,' " Cahill said, adding that the state courts have no jurisdiction over federal litigation or settlements.

He pointedly added, "I think the city is trying to dump their responsibility back on the court where it does not belong."

Barnette declined to comment.

Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office is overseeing the prosecution, declined to comment when asked by a reporter whether he or the court knew that a settlement had been reached before hit was announced on Friday. His son Jeremiah Ellison is a Minneapolis City Council member and voted for the settlement.

While Cahill was concerned about the $27 million settlement, he also called a leak in recent weeks about Chauvin agreeing to a plea deal to third-degree murder days after Floyd's death "particularly pernicious." Former U.S. Attorney General William Barr reportedly canceled that deal, according to the New York Times, which cited unnamed law enforcement officials.

In contrast, Cahill said the financial settlement "is not just a legal decision, it's a political one. ... And I think the people in [this] room realize that."

In addition to Nelson's request to delay or move the trial, he also asked Cahill to reconsider allowing details from Floyd's May 2019 arrest in Minneapolis. Cahill previously denied testimony about the arrest, but opened the door Tuesday after hearing Nelson's arguments. He said he would rule Thursday.

In both May 2019 and 2020, Floyd swallowed drugs during his police encounters. In the earlier incident, captured on police body camera video, the drugs led to a "hypertensive emergency" and Floyd's hospitalization.

According to the evidence from the earlier arrest, Nelson said, a paramedic warned Floyd that his blood pressure was extremely high, and if he didn't calm down he was at risk of a heart attack or stroke.

The cause of Floyd's death will be a core issue at trial. Nelson will walk carefully, but he will attempt to show that Floyd's ingestion of copious pills upon arrest — not Chauvin's knee on his neck — could have caused his death.

Nelson said the two arrests and Floyd's behavior were "remarkably similar." In both arrests. drugs were discovered in Floyd's car along with chewed-up pills in the back of the squad that tested positive for methamphetamine and fentanyl, along with Floyd's DNA.

Cahill said the relevance arguably was what "Mr. Floyd's bodily response to ingestion of a large amount of drugs might be."

Nelson responded, "Precisely."

Prosecutor Matthew Frank argued against admission of the arrest, calling it the "desperation of the defense" and an attempt to disparage Floyd's struggles with opiate addiction.

Throughout the afternoon Tuesday, Nelson attempted to get jurors to reveal bias so he wouldn't have to use his dwindling strikes. He was successful with one of the afternoon's jurors, who told him there was "no unseeing the viral bystander video footage of the incident" in which Chauvin put his knee on Floyd's neck.

After extensive questioning by Nelson, Cahill eventually dismissed the man.

The day's final jury candidate was questioned extensively by prosecutors about a close friendship with a police officer who works for a large Twin Cities agency that is not Minneapolis police.

Prosecutor Steve Schleicher asked the man about his ability to weigh testimony from law enforcement against that of a bystander.

"Naturally, I would believe the police officer more," said the man, who lives in a suburb and has three grown children, "because they have more experience and training with what's going on than someone who is walking down the street."

Cahill asked who was more likely to tell the truth. The man replied, "I guess more likely the police officer."

The judge then excused the prospective juror.

Three other officers assisting in Floyd's arrest — J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao — are scheduled to be tried in August on charges of aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter.

Staff Writer Chao Xiong contributed to this report.

rochelle.olson@startribune.com • 612-673-1747

Paul.Walsh@startribune.com • 612-673-4482