Judge bars 'sloppy' prosecutors from case of ex-cops charged in George Floyd's death
By Nick Pfosi
MINNEAPOLIS (Reuters) - The judge in the criminal case against four former Minneapolis police officers charged in George Floyd's death disqualified four local prosecutors on Friday because of "sloppy" work, while a special prosecutor said the defendants had "acted together" and should face trial together.
The hearing before Hennepin County District Court Judge Peter Cahill focused on various motions in the criminal case arising from Floyd's death, which led to protests in the United States and other countries against racism and police brutality.
It was the first time all four defendants - Derek Chauvin, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao - appeared together since the May 25 death of Floyd, who was Black. Chauvin, who is white, knelt on Floyd's neck for about nine minutes. He faces the most serious charge of second-degree murder.
While Cahill did not rule on any major motions, he dealt a blow to the prosecution by disqualifying Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman and three other lawyers in his office from participating in the case because of a meeting they had with the medical examiner with no outside attorneys present. The medical examiner is the official who looked into the cause of death.
"It was sloppy not to have someone present. Those four attorneys are off the case," Cahill said. "They are now witnesses."
After the hearing, Floyd's relatives and lawyers pushed back against the assertion made by defense attorneys in court filings that Floyd, who had the powerful opioid pain medication fentanyl in his system, died of an overdose rather than cardiopulmonary arrest, the official cause of death.
"The only overdose that killed George Floyd was an overdose of excessive force and racism by the Minneapolis Police Department," lawyer Ben Crump said outside the courthouse. "It is a blatant attempt to kill George Floyd a second time."
Chauvin was wearing a gray suit, dark shirt and tie, and blue surgical mask amid the coronavirus pandemic. He appeared thinner than on the bystander videos that showed the incident.
Neal Katyal, a special attorney for the state, said a joint trial was justified given that the evidence was similar for all four defendants and because separate trials would force relatives to repeatedly relive the trauma of Floyd's death.
"I have seen a lot in my life, and I can barely watch the videos," Katyal, a lawyer and the U.S. Justice Department's former acting solicitor general, said about the bystander videos of Chauvin pinning Floyd to the pavement.
"These defendants acted together, they were on the scene together, they were talking to each other during the nine minutes Floyd was on the ground," Katyal said.
Kueng, Lane and Thao have all been charged with aiding and abetting both second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter for not taking action to help Floyd.
All four defendants have opposed a prosecution motion to consolidate their cases into one trial. They have requested that their cases be moved outside Minneapolis and have filed motions to dismiss the charges.
Robert Paule, an attorney for Thao, said combining the cases would force him to defend against the prosecution and navigate the potentially conflicting interests of the other defendants.
"You are bringing in a group of bobcats in a bag and letting them loose in a courtroom at all once," Paule told the hearing.
More than 100 protesters gathered outside the Family Justice Center in Minneapolis, which was barricaded with a fence and concrete blocks, chanting "Black lives matter," "no justice, no peace" and "indict, convict, send those killer cops to jail."
Cahill said it was premature to decide whether to move the trial. He said he wanted to send a questionnaire to potential jurors to see how they had been affected by media coverage, and whether a fair jury could be selected in Hennepin County.
Cahill said he was leaning toward having an anonymous jury, citing potential security threats. The judge said a trial would likely last six weeks, including two weeks for jury selection.
(Reporting by Nick Pfosi in Minneapolis and Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; Editing by Steve Orlofsky, Will Dunham and Grant McCool)