Judge rules trial over Bloomington stabbing can continue at locked-down Government Center over prosecution opposition

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Libor Jany, Star Tribune
·4 min read
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A Hennepin County judge ruled that the trial of a man charged in a stabbing last fall can move forward at the fortified Government Center, despite prosecutors' arguments that tight security related to Derek Chauvin's murder case could violate the defendant's right to a public trial.

On Tuesday, District Judge Kerry Meyer ordered that the trial of Arnold Benedict Cole, 32, would proceed once an overflow room could be found, from where court observers could watch the proceedings remotely.

Meyer's ruling comes a day after prosecutors made a motion to reconsider, again asking Meyer for a continuance on the grounds that public access to the case was limited by restrictions related to COVID-19 and security measures related to the ongoing murder trial of ex-Minneapolis police officer Chauvin in the death of George Floyd. The defense objected by arguing that delaying the case violated Cole's constitutional right to a speedy trial.

Both Chauvin and Cole's trials were set to start on the same day, March 8, but Cole's was postponed until this week when prosecutors pushed for a continuance until after the conclusion of the Chauvin trial, citing safety concerns. More than a week before the trials were to begin, the government center was locked down to almost everyone, including the 2,500 people who normally work there. It's surrounded by fencing and concertina wire, and access to the building is limited to a handful of court personnel and potential jurors, who are allowed in only through heavily guarded entrances and must carry credentials.

Cole stands accused of second-degree attempted murder stemming from a Sept. 15, 2020 incident in which he allegedly stabbed and seriously injured another man at the 28th Avenue Light Rail Station in Bloomington.

In asking for Meyer to reconsider her earlier decision, assistant Hennepin County attorney Tara Ferguson Lopez argued that if the state won a conviction, it could be easily appealed and overturned because it violates Cole's Sixth Amendment right to a public trial. " ... A district court must take 'every reasonable measure to accommodate public attendance at criminal trials.'""In sum, the State has grave concerns that any proceedings that take place under these circumstances will (violate) Defendant's constitutional rights and objects to proceeding in such a manner," Ferguson Lopez wrote in the motion.

"A spokesman for the Hennepin County Attorney's Office said that prosecutors are considering asking the Court of Appeals to reverse the ruling.

Adam Johnson, an attorney at the law firm Lundgren & Johnson, PSC, said that if Cole were convicted, "It's essentially a slam dunk win on appeal, if there's a public trial violation." He added that the prosecution is likely contesting the judge's ruling "because they're afraid of doing all that work for nothing."

A Fox 9-TV report Tuesday said that a defense attorney in another case — in which the defendant like Cole was Black — questioned the fairness of having two Black defendants to stay in custody awaiting trial, while Chauvin remained free on $2 million bond.

The U.S. and Minnesota constitutions guarantee defendants, whether jailed or not, the right to a speedy trial. State law calls for a trial to commence within 60 days of a speedy trial demand.

"The State is in no way minimizing the valid security threats and concerns related to the Government Center," Ferguson Lopez wrote. "But those measures taken as a result of the Chauvin trial have permeated the public aspect of other trials that are supposed to be conducted at the same time."

Court authorities had previously suggested that many trials would be delayed for the duration of the Chauvin case out of an abundance of caution. In an e-mail earlier this year, Chief Judge Toddrick Barnette provided guidelines for delaying felony jury trials in light of Chauvin's trial and new COVID-19 guidance from the state Supreme Court.

Barnette wrote that demands for a speedy trial made by defendants who are in custody, or in jail, will move forward, but the same demands from defendants who are out of custody will undergo additional scrutiny for possible exceptions until after Chauvin's trial.

Barnette's plan was also partly shaped by Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea's Jan. 21 order governing statewide court activities due to COVID-19.

Gildea ordered that effective Feb. 1, jury trials in progress will continue, but that no new jury trials will begin before March 15. She allowed each district's chief judge to grant exceptions. In-custody defendants charged with certain crimes who had made speedy trial demands were also exempt from the delay.

Staff writer Chao Xiong contributed to this report.

Libor Jany • 612-673-4064 Twitter: @StribJany