The trial of three former Minneapolis police officers charged with aiding and abetting in the death of George Floyd will be pushed back to March 2022, in part to allow the publicity over Derek Chauvin’s conviction to cool off, a judge ruled Thursday.
Thomas Lane, J. Kueng and Tou Thao were to face trial Aug. 23 on charges they aided and abetted both murder and manslaughter. Their co-defendant, Chauvin, was convicted in April of murder and manslaughter. All four officers also face federal charges that they violated Floyd’s civil rights during his May 25 arrest.
Judge Peter Cahill said he moved the other officers’ trial so the federal case can go forward first. No date has been set for the federal case, but Cahill said it carries higher potential penalties. He also said he felt the need to put some distance between the three officers’ trial and Chauvin’s due to the high-profile nature of the case.
The order for the delay came during a hearing on pretrial motions. The former officers were not in court, but their defense attorneys all agreed to the postponement. The state, via Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank, did not support the delay. It wasn’t made clear at the hearing who originally sought the change. The attorneys left the courthouse without commenting.
Chauvin, who was seen in widely viewed bystander video pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck as the Black man said he couldn’t breathe, was convicted in April of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter. He’s to be sentenced June 25, with legal experts saying he faces up to 30 years in prison, though he could get less.
Former federal prosecutor Mark Osler, now a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, said the delay could mean the former officers are talking about a plea deal, particularly since their attorneys supported the delay and the prosecution did not.
“One can infer that the defense attorneys are hoping that the federal case will offer lower penalties for their clients and a dismissal of the state charges,” Osler said.
Although federal civil rights violations can carry the possibility of the death penalty, experts say that won’t happen. Osler said Chauvin could face a life sentence if convicted on the federal charges but declined to predict potential federal sentences for the others. He said they could be less than they might get in state court.
Minnesota law treats aiding and abetting the same as the underlying crime. So, if the three other ex-officers are convicted, the state’s sentencing guidelines would recommend sentences of 12 1/2 years on the murder counts and four years on the manslaughter counts. But Cahill has some flexibility to go up or down a few years without providing an explanation, and he could go significantly higher if he formally finds there were aggravating factors as he did with Chauvin.
During Thursday’s hearing, attorneys for the defense argued that prosecutors should be sanctioned after media reports that Chauvin had planned to plead guilty a year ago. Frank said the Attorney General’s Office was willing to submit affidavits from personnel involved in the case to state that they were not the source of the leak. A prosecutor from the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office said they would do the same.
Cahill said he would hold an evidentiary hearing on the issue, probably in August.
In a separate motion, Earl Gray, Lane’s attorney, asked Cahill to compel the state to disclose all use-of-force reports over the past 30 years — after initially asking for data dating back 50 years — in which a Minneapolis police officer used force and another officer intervened verbally or physically. Gray said it’s necessary to show the jury that no such intervention has been made, which would call into question the state’s expert testimony about the duty of officers to intervene.
Frank argued that the request was overly broad and should be denied; Cahill said he would take it under advisement.
Thao’s attorney, Bob Paule, filed a motion late Wednesday asking the court to sanction prosecutors for allegedly failing to disclose information about the alleged coercion of a witness. Paule claimed that the Hennepin County medical examiner, Dr. Mark Baker, was coerced to include “neck compression” in his findings — and that prosecutors knew of it.
Frank, in a brief letter to Cahill, said, “The bizarre allegations offered in support of the motion are false and wrong and we intend to file a complete response.”
The issue did not come up during Thursday’s hearing.