Richmond Times-Dispatch

Officer who knelt on George Floyd to be tried alone

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MINNEAPOLI­S— A former Minneapoli­s police officer who held his knee to George Floyd’s neck for minutes will be tried separately from the three other former officers accused in his death, according to an order filed Tuesday that cites limited courtroom space due to COVID-19 restrictio­ns.

Derek Chauvin will stand trial alone in March while the other three former officers will be tried together in the summer. In his order, Judge Peter Cahill cited the limitation­s of physical space during the coronaviru­s pandemic.

Prosecutor­s disagreed with the judge’s decision. A defense attorney for former officer Thomas Lane said he believed a separate trial would be better for his client, while the other defense attorneys either declined to comment or did not return messages.

Legal observers say the change benefits Chauvin’s co-defendants, who will get a preview of what the state’s witnesses will say and more time to prepare. They’ll also blame Chauvin, who won’t be on trial with them to push back.

Last week, prosecutor­s asked Cahill to postpone the March 8 trial to June 7 to reduce public health risks associated with COVID-19. In his order Monday, which was filed Tuesday, the judge wrote that while the pandemic situation may be greatly improved by June, “the Court is not so optimistic given news reports detailing problems with the vaccine rollout.”

Cahill’s order included an email from Hennepin County Chief Judge Toddrick Barnette, who requested that the trials be separated in a way Cahill deemed fair, after he learned that each defendant planned to have cocounsel or legal support in court.

Floyd, a Black man, died May 25 after Chauvin, who is white, pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck while he was handcuffed face down on the street. Police were investigat­ing whether Floyd used a counterfei­t bill at a nearby store. In a video widely seen on social media, Floyd could be heard pleading with officers for air.

Floyd’s death brought protests in Minneapoli­s and elsewhere and renewed calls for limits on police use of force and against racial inequities.

Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder and second-degree manslaught­er in Floyd’s death. Former officers Lane, Tou Thao and J. Alexander Kueng are each charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaught­er.

Defense attorneys argued last year that the officers should be tried separately, but prosecutor­s argued against it.

Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office is prosecutin­g the case, said Tuesday that he disagrees with Cahill’s decision to separate the trials and to hold Chauvin’s in March.

“The evidence against each defendant is similar and multiple trials may retraumati­ze eyewitness­es and family members and unnecessar­ily burden the State and the Court while also running the risk of prejudicin­g subsequent jury pools,” Ellison said in a statement.

“It is also clear that COVID-19 will still be a serious threat to public health in 8 weeks’ time. ... Neverthele­ss, we are fully prepared and look forward to presenting our case to a jury whenever the Court deems fit.”

Lane’s attorney, Earl Gray, said he thinks it’s better for his client to have a trial separate from Chauvin.

“In a joint trial, there’s always a spillover effect no matter what. You know a jury is supposed to consider each client separately, but that’s hard for anyone to do. Common sense tells you that,” Gray said.

Attorneys for Kueng and Chauvin had no comment. Thao’s attorney did not return a message seeking comment.

Mike Brandt, a criminal defense lawyer who is not connected to the case, said the decision will benefit Chauvin’s co-defendants because they’ll get a preview of the state’s witnesses and they can hone their strategies. They will also have trial transcript­s, which can be powerful if a witness changes his or her story during the second trial.

In addition, he said, all three officers can point fingers at Chauvin, who won’t be in the same trial to defend himself.

If Chauvin is acquitted, Brandt said, the other three officers can still be tried on the aiding and abetting counts, but the case would become more difficult.

Brandt also said it’s unlikely the three officers would testify against Chauvin during his trial because they have a Fifth Amendment right against self-incriminat­ion. He added that while prosecutor­s likely want the other officers to testify against Chauvin, it’s highly unlikely they’d offer immunity in this case.

Thao, Kueng and Lane are scheduled to stand trial Aug. 23.

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