MINNEAPOLIS – A judge tentatively scheduled a March 2021 trial date for the four former Minneapolis police officers charged in George Floyd’s death, though considerable uncertainty remains about how the case will unfold following a hearing here Monday afternoon.
Three of the four ex-officers appeared in person at a Hennepin County courtroom Monday for a joint hearing, with the one facing the most serious charges – Derek Chauvin, who was filmed driving his knee into Floyd’s neck – appeared remotely from the state prison where he is being held.
It is unclear if some or all of the officers will be tried together or separately. While prosecutors seem to be pushing for a consolidated trial, defense attorneys are instead expected to push for separate prosecutions.
Chauvin was charged with second-degree murder, while the other three – Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng – were charged with aiding and abetting Chauvin.
The Minneapolis Police Department fired all four of the men in the frenzied aftermath of Floyd’s death, which set off nationwide demonstrations against racial injustice and police violence.
The case or cases are anticipated to draw intense scrutiny through the trial phase, and that publicity and media attention already drew a rebuke from Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill during Monday’s hearing. Cahill stopped short of issuing a gag order in the case, but he sternly warned prosecutors to get public officials to stop talking about it, saying that such actions might result in having to move the trial elsewhere.
Cahill also admonished two members of Floyd’s family – Angela Harrison and Selwyn Jones, Floyd’s aunt and uncle – for visibly reacting to his statements in court. Speaking to reporters afterward, Jones said he was offended by the judge’s comment, pointing out that he was just “feet away” from the officers accused of killing his nephew and was dealing with the resulting emotions.
Jones said the hearing gave him little confidence in the case.
“I know how the system works. I’ve seen the system my whole life – a black man getting shaded, slighted,” he said. “When I walk into a courthouse and I see like 15 white people, I’m like, ‘Oh, hell, we’re going through this again.’ So we’ll see how the process ends up.”
None of the officers entered pleas in court Monday, but after the hearing, Kueng’s attorney filed a document with the court advising that his client intends to plead not guilty. Cahill set two dates for the case or cases ahead, scheduling a pretrial hearing on Sept. 11 and then tentatively slotting the trial to begin March 8, 2021.
While Chauvin is being held on a minimum of $1 million bail, Lane and Kueng are both out on bail and Thao is being held at the Hennepin County Jail on a minimum $750,000 bail.
Because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the county jail has issued masks to those detained there; when Thao appeared at the hearing, he was wearing such a mask and an orange jump suit. He glanced briefly at four people who were seated in the courtroom, none of whom spoke to members of the media afterward.
Lane and Kueng arrived at the hearing separately, both walking in with their attorneys through a glassed-in hallway at the Hennepin County Public Safety Facility. Clad in face masks, the two former officers both avoided making eye contact with the dozens of reporters and photographers crushed up against a window observing their arrival.
Attorneys for those two men have argued that their clients, rookies who had been full-time officers for less than half a week, were following the orders of Chauvin, a 19-year-veteran of the department who had been their field training officer. They argue that their clients tried to intervene to help Floyd as he struggled to breathe on the pavement but that they were rebuffed by Chauvin, the senior officer at the scene who they say was in control.
Experts and police chiefs have argued that a core issue hindering reform is veteran officers who resist new training and teach rookies other ways to police their communities, pointing to Chauvin as a prime example. Lane’s attorney, Earl Gray, argued during a bail hearing that his client was merely abiding by “what the training officer said.”
State prosecutors and Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo have pushed back against that argument, with the chief saying that merely being a rookie is no excuse for failing to step in to do what is right.
“I don’t put policies out to say that you should only react or respond if you’re a two-year member or a five-year member or a 10-year member,” Arradondo said earlier this month.
Public officials, responding to the outcry that began in Minneapolis and gripped the nation, have assailed Floyd’s death. Arradondo, who took over as police chief in 2017, issued a statement saying that Floyd’s death “was murder; it wasn’t a lack of training.”
Defense attorneys quickly seized on his remarks. And attorneys for the four former officers filed an unusual motion in court that supported media organizations – including The Washington Post – that are seeking audio and video access to upcoming hearings. The defense attorneys are seeking to counterbalance what other officials are saying about the men.
Thomas Plunkett, writing for the defendants, cited “unethical leaks” and “many prejudicial comments” from public officials including Arradondo and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office is leading the prosecution. Plunkett wrote that having open media coverage of the hearings would give the former officers a better chance at a fair trial.
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Berman reported from Washington.