December 4, 2021

Police officers charged in George Floyd’s death oppose TV trial

Lawyers for three former Minneapolis police officers charged in George Floyd’s death have asked a judge to bar their upcoming trial from being livestreamed, saying some witnesses will not testify if the proceedings are broadcast.

The request from the lawyers for Thomas Lane, J Kueng and Tou Thao on Thursday is an about-face from their earlier request to have the trial publicly broadcast, and it is opposed by prosecutors and news outlets including The Associated Press.

Lane, Kueng and Thao are scheduled to stand trial next March on charges of aiding and abetting both second-degree murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s May 2020 death. Their co-defendant, Derek Chauvin, was convicted in April of murder and manslaughter after weeks of proceedings that marked the first time in Minnesota that a criminal trial was livestreamed in its entirety.

Before Chauvin’s trial, lawyers for all four men requested the trials be broadcast, but Lane and Kueng recently backtracked, with their lawyers saying that the “worldwide publicity” from televised coverage of Chauvin’s trail “crushed” their clients’ right to a fair trial. Lawyers Earl Gray and Tom Plunkett said the public access led some witnesses to decline to testify for the defence, noting one witness in the Chauvin trial has been harassed and another faced professional scrutiny.

“Cameras in the Chauvin Courtroom brought us to the dangerous pass where people are deterred from testifying for the defense because they fear the wrath of the crowd,” they wrote.

Thao’s lawyer, Robert Paule, said in court on Thursday that he would file a motion to join the other two officers in objecting.

Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill, who presided over Chauvin’s trial and is also handling the case of the other three officers, said he would rule later on the livestreaming matter.

Minnesota court rules usually ban cameras at criminal trials unless both sides agree to them. Cahill ordered the trials to be broadcast live, over the initial objections of prosecutors, because of the intense global interest in the case and limited court space due to the pandemic. The livestreaming was widely praised and has led the state to consider expanding its rules for broadcasting future court proceedings.

Prosecutors initially opposed livestreaming Chauvin’s trial but now have said it was the right move — protecting everyone involved during the pandemic, allowing for meaningful public access and letting people watch the fair administration of the justice system.

They have favoured livestreaming the second trial as well, saying defence claims that audio-video coverage will deny them a fair trial is unconvincing. They said there is no concrete evidence that any witnesses are refusing to testify for the defence — and if that is the case, reluctant witnesses can be compelled to appear.

“Indeed, if Defendants have difficulty finding expert witnesses — and there is no evidence that they cannot secure experts — that difficulty is a product of their overwhelming guilt,” prosecutors wrote.

Lawyers for a media coalition also say the court should allow audio-video coverage, saying even if the trial is not televised, witnesses will still face publicity and scrutiny because their names and the content of their testimony will be reported. The media coalition argued that some witnesses are not worried about a livestream but just do not want to be associated with the defendants.

Former MPD officer Tou Thao exits the Hennepin County Family Justice Center following a hearing on various charges related to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, US, September 11, 2020 [File: Nicholas Pfosi/Reuters]

The media lawyers also argued that barring cameras would mean the public cannot fully monitor what is going on.

Brock Hunter, a Minnesota defence lawyer, said barring cameras will not protect witness identities because “whether on stream testifying or just quoted in the news, they are going to be publicly identified and face potential backlash”.

In other motions filed on Thursday, Gray dropped a request that the state provide all use-of-force reports since July 2016 in which another officer intervened in force used by a colleague, because he is pursuing them from the city. An officer’s duty to intervene came up often during testimony in Chauvin’s trial.

Cahill also heard arguments Thursday on a defence motion that alleged a potential expert witness for the state coerced the testimony of Hennepin County Medical Examiner Dr Andrew Baker, which the state has denied. He also considered a defence request for sanctions after The New York Times reported that Chauvin had been prepared to plead guilty days after Floyd’s death. Numerous lawyers from the Attorney General’s Office and the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office have filed affidavits stating they were not the source of the leaked information.

Chauvin has been sentenced to 22.5 years in prison. All four former officers also face federal charges that they violated Floyd’s civil rights.