Jury selection was delayed for at least a day in the murder case against Derek Chauvin, the fired Minneapolis police officer charged with killing George Floyd on a Minneapolis street corner nearly 10 months ago.
Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill said he wants to hear from the state Court of Appeals about the prosecution’s desire to revive a third-degree murder charge to the counts of second-degree murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death last May, which was captured on a bystander’s cellphone video and broadcast around the world.
Cahill, who threw out the disputed count last fall, sent the prospective jurors home for the day ahead of bringing them back on Tuesday.
“Unless the Court of Appeals tells me otherwise, we’re going to keep moving,” Cahill said as court adjourned shortly before 3 p.m.
Chauvin, dressed in a navy blue suit and tie and wearing a black mask, looked on intently while attorneys and the judge discussed motions and other matters, occasionally taking notes on a yellow legal pad.
Proceedings resumed at 1:43 p.m. CST Monday for the airing of dozens of motions. After slightly more than an hour, Cahill adjourned the case until 8 a.m., with jury selection coming soon afterward as the appeals process looms large over the case calendar.
In the meantime, prosecutors filed a petition to the state Court of Appeals to stop jury selection until the appeals court rules on whether Cahill has jurisdiction while the third-degree murder charge is pending. If trial proceeds, they argued, Chauvin is in a “Heads I win, tails you lose” scenario because he could take his chances at trial, and if convicted, can appeal with the claim that Cahill lacked jurisdiction when jury selection began.
“There is no need for this kind of uncertainty in any case, let alone a case of this magnitude,” the state wrote in its petition.
“The state is fully ready to go to trial, but the trial must be conducted in accordance with the rules and the law,” Attorney General Keith Ellison, who is leading the prosecution team, said in a statement late Monday morning. “Now that Mr. Chauvin has stated his intention to appeal Friday’s Court of Appeals ruling to the Minnesota Supreme Court, as is his right, the District Court does not have jurisdiction to conduct jury selection or hear and rule on other substantive matters in the trial.”
Cahill initially said he would start jury selection with the third-degree murder issue unresolved. Finding an impartial panel is sure to be a meticulous task that could take up to three weeks to accomplish before an anticipated March 29 date for opening statements from the defense and the prosecution.
Chauvin’s defense attorney, Eric Nelson, said he intends to ask the State Supreme Court to overturn a Court of Appeals ruling Friday that directed Cahill to reinstate the third-degree murder charge against the former cop.
But Nelson also said he was ready to begin trial with the charge still pending. He said he expected to petition to the Supreme Court as soon as Tuesday.
“I want to inform the court that we’re prepared to try this case,” he said. “It is not our intent to cause delay. However, I feel I have an ethical obligation to my client to [petition the Supreme Court].”
Prosecutor Matthew Frank contended that proceedings are best to be delayed.
“This court will be seating jurors for a trial about which we don’t know what the exact charges are going to be yet,” Frank said. “What we are asking the court to do is stop the jury selection process at this time.”
Cahill contended that the third-degree murder charge is a narrow issue and questioned whether a jury could continue to be seated before that charge is resolved. Waiting for the Supreme Court to rule, the judge cautioned, could delay the trial by at least 30 days.
“We want it out in the open, we don’t want to wait for a condition that may not get satisfied when a jury is sitting there,” Frank said. “We’re not trying to delay this case, we want to try it right, and we can only try it once.”
During the afternoon’s back and forth over motions, both sides agreed to witness sequestration, or not allowing witnesses to watch the trial before or after they testify. Expert witnesses can watch the testimony of other expert witnesses in order to prepare counterarguments.
The prosecution and defense also agreed that the current list of potential witnesses, totaling anywhere from 350 to 400, will be dramatically reduced to what the judge called “actual witnesses” and shared with each side by March 22, a week before opening statements are scheduled to be made.
Chauvin’s attorney rekindled a push to change the judge’s mind and win permission to reference at trial a 2019 arrest of Floyd in Minneapolis that bore similarities in terms of the drugs that were found in his vehicle and his response to police.
Nelson argued that the earlier arrest shows that Floyd reacted in a nearly identical manner by ingesting illicit drugs when confronted by police and did so on the night he was detained and died.
The judge, while not outright rejecting the notion, said, “I’m not convinced yet to reverse my ruling. … The bottom line is it’s not of relevance to me.” He pointed out that Chauvin was not part of the earlier arrest and there’s been no evidence of what he know about that encounter.
Floyd died after the 46-year-old Black man was pinned under the knee of the white officer for roughly 9 minutes touching off days of violent demonstrations in Minneapolis, neighboring St. Paul and across the country.
On Monday, outside the Hennepin County Government Center, hundreds of protesters mingled on a mild and sunny late-winter morning. Some were selling or giving away flowers. Posters with activist messages were attached to barricades and chain-link fencing that rings the building. Law enforcement personnel and heavy vehicles were obvious in their presence but modest in number.
Three other fired officers implicated in Floyd’s death are scheduled for a single trial in August.
The 18th-floor courtroom has been revamped to allow for social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Big clear plastic dividers separate the judge and court staff from the limited number of other people in the courtroom. Clear dividers also run down the middle of the defense and prosecution tables.
Staff writer Rochelle Olson contributed to this report.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482