MINNEAPOLIS — The attorney for Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer convicted of murder in the death of George Floyd, filed a motion for a new trial Tuesday, alleging that misconduct by the judge, prosecutors and jurors compromised his client’s right to a fair trial.
In his motion, Eric Nelson accused Hennepin County District Court Judge Peter Cahill of “abuse of discretion” when he denied a defense request to move the trial out of Minneapolis and later refused to sequester the jury, arguing the intense media coverage of Floyd’s death both before and during the proceedings undermined “the fairness of the trial.”
Nelson also contends Chauvin’s defense was damaged by “post-testimony, but predeliberation intimidation of the defense’s expert witnesses, from which the jury was not insulated.”
“Not only did such acts escalate the potential for prejudice in these proceedings, they may result in a far-reaching chilling effort on defendants’ ability to procure expert witness — especially in high-profile cases such as those of Mr. Chauvin’s co-defendants — to testify on their behalf,” Nelson wrote. “The publicity was so pervasive and so prejudicial before and during this trial that it amounted to a structural defect in the proceedings.”
Nelson said Cahill’s refusal to sequester the jury before deliberations resulted in exposure to news coverage that was damaging to Chauvin “as well as jury intimidation and potential fear of retribution among jurors,” though he did not offer any evidence for his claim.
The motion also calls for a hearing to investigate whether the jury “committed misconduct, felt threatened or intimidated, felt race-based pressure during the proceedings and/or failed to adhere to instructions during deliberations.”
The request comes several days after one of the jurors, Brandon Mitchell, spoke out publicly about the panel’s deliberations.
Mitchell told several media outlets that jurors had wondered why Chauvin didn’t testify on his own behalf, a statement that some legal experts suggested could spark a defense motion to re-question jurors about whether Chauvin’s silence influenced their verdict. Cahill had told the jury that Chauvin’s decision not to testify should not figure into their decision-making.
Mitchell has also come under scrutiny in recent days after a photo surfaced of him wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt while attending last summer’s March on Washington, a ceremony to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. Mitchell had indicated on his juror questionnaire that he had not attended any Black Lives Matter protests, and he told the Star Tribune he did not consider the District of Columbia event to be a protest or an event specifically about Floyd’s death.
Nelson’s filing, which was expected, faults Cahill repeatedly for his handling of the trial.
He argues the judge should have admonished jurors to “avoid all media” — an instruction that Cahill gave only later in the proceedings after word of a $27 million civil settlement between Floyd’s family and the city of Minneapolis resulted in two seated jurors being dismissed during jury selection.
Nelson said Cahill also violated Chauvin’s right to a fair trial when he declined to force Morries Lester Hall, a passenger in Floyd’s car the night he was killed, to testify or to allow the defense to enter into evidence statements that Hall made to law enforcement after Floyd’s death.
Hall, who had allegedly sold drugs to Floyd in the past, invoked his constitutional right against self-incrimination in refusing to testify. His attorney argued his testimony could open him up to a third-degree murder charge in Floyd’s death, given the presence of drugs in Floyd’s system.
Nelson also accused Cahill of allowing prosecutors to present “cumulative evidence” on use-of-force and of giving the jury instructions “that failed to accurately reflect the law” including on use-of-force.
Chauvin’s attorney also accused prosecutors of “pervasive, prejudicial … misconduct,” including “disparaging the defense” and “failing to adequately prepare its witnesses.”
John Stiles, a spokesman for Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office oversaw the prosecution, dismissed Nelson’s claims. “The court has already rejected many of these arguments, and the state will vigorously oppose them,” Stiles said.
Chauvin was found guilty last month of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in Floyd’s May 2020 death, which came after the former officer knelt on the man’s neck and back for nine minutes and 29 seconds during an arrest.
Chauvin, who is being held in solitary confinement at a Minnesota prison while awaiting his June 25 sentencing, faces as much as 40 years under enhanced sentencing guidelines requested by the state.