Prosecutors change mind, won't contest Hennepin County judge's ruling to resume public trials

Libor Jany, Star Tribune
·3 min read

The Hennepin County Attorney's Office said Wednesday that it will not appeal a judge's ruling that the trial of a man charged in a stabbing last fall can move forward, clearing the way for other public trials to resume at the heavily fortified Government Center.

Prosecutors had previously argued for a continuance in the attempted murder case on the grounds that that public access to the case was limited by restrictions related to COVID-19 and security measures related to the ongoing trial of ex-Minneapolis police officer Chauvin in the death of George Floyd. After District Judge Kerry Meyer twice denied their motion to postpone the attempted murder trial until after the Chauvin case is resolved, the county attorney's office flirted with the idea of asking the Court of Appeals to reverse the ruling.

"Our office proposed that these cases should either be continued until the conclusion of the State vs. Chauvin trial, or that the courtrooms should be made available to the public," the office said in a news release. "Judge Kerry Meyer issued a supplemental order late yesterday, in response to our motion to reconsider the initial decision. We now accept the Court's position and are satisfied that the public has access to any trials other than the State vs. Chauvin trial."

The underlying case in question stems from an incident last fall in which the defendant, Benedict Cole, 32, allegedly stabbed and seriously injured another man at the 28th Avenue light-rail station in Bloomington.

Meanwhile, defense attorneys objected by arguing that delaying the case violated their clients' constitutional right to a speedy trial.

Both Chauvin and Cole's trials were set to start on 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.

Lacey Severins, a spokesperson for the office, said that she took the order to mean that members of the public and the media can once again attend trials at the Government Center, "but it's incredibly limited."

"Our interpretation of this order is that our courtrooms are now open to the public," she said. "All of the members of the public will need to go to the district court about getting access to the courtroom."

She said that Meyer's order sets aside six seats in each courtroom, with half reserved for the family and friends of the defendant and the rest for the public, including members of the news media. Court officials have also set up two overflow rooms several blocks away at the Family Justice Center — 110 S 4th St, — from which people can watch court proceedings — signs will be posted outside the Government Center to point the way. Because of social distancing restrictions, the rooms have been arranged to only hold 12 and 20 people, respectively.

Anyone looking to attend a trial in person or watch from one of the overflow rooms is urged to contact the District Court at (612) 348-2040, Severins said.

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