MINNEAPOLIS – Prosecutors revealed Monday evening that they offered plea deals to three former Minneapolis police officers charged with aiding and abetting the murder of George Floyd, but said at a hearing that the defendants rejected them.
Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill held the hearing mostly to consider whether he has the authority to allow live video coverage of the upcoming trial set to begin in June for former Officers Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng. They're charged with aiding and abetting both manslaughter and murder when former officer Derek Chauvin used his knee to pin Floyd, a Black man, to the pavement for 9 1/2 minutes on May 25, 2020. Kueng knelt on Floyd’s back, Lane held his legs and Thao kept bystanders back.
Lead prosecutor Matthew Frank did not disclose details of the plea offers in open court but said they were identical and were made March 22 after a jury convicted the three in a separate trial in February on federal civil rights charges stemming from Floyd’s death, according to pool reports from inside the courtroom.
Lane’s attorney, Earl Gray, said it was hard for the defense to negotiate when the three still don’t know what their federal sentences will be. The judge in that case has not set a sentencing date, and all three remain free on bail.
Cahill told Frank to file the offers for the record after the jury is seated for the upcoming trial, which is expected to take around eight weeks, including three for jury selection.
Cahill took the rare step of allowing live audiovisual coverage of Chauvin's murder trial last year, making an exception to the normal rules of Minnesota courts. He cited the extenuating circumstance of the need to balance protecting participants from COVID-19 against the constitutional requirement for a public trial.
Now that the U.S. has entered a new phase of living with the coronavirus, Cahill must decide whether to allow the same sort of access for the trial of Thao, Lane and Kueng. He did not rule during their pretrial hearing, and said he won't until after the Minnesota Judicial Council — a panel of leading judges and court administrators — meets Thursday to discuss the issue.
Attorney Leita Walker, who represents a coalition of media organizations, including The Associated Press, urged Cahill to allow video coverage again, saying it's the most reasonable way to ensure public and media access to the trial. She said the public got to watch Chauvin's trial, and that interest remains high because both involve Floyd's death. The killing, which was recorded on video, sparked protests around the world and a national reckoning on race.
“The public is just not going to understand why they got to watch that one gavel to gavel and they won’t be able to watch this one,” Walker said.
But Cahill questioned Walker’s assertions that he has the authority to make another exception and that the pandemic is still an extenuating circumstance.
“COVID-19 is less of a pandemic and more of an endemic issue now,” Cahill said.
Cahill noted that while he has publicly said he now believes the legal presumption should be to allow televised trials, he pointed out that that’s not the rule yet. “I’m still sworn to uphold the law,” he said.
Defense attorneys said they still oppose audiovisual coverage of the upcoming trial, and renewed concerns about the willingness of witnesses to testify.
Minnesota court rules generally require the consent of all parties for audiovisual coverage of trials, with fewer restrictions for sentencings. Chauvin’s trial was the first in Minnesota to be entirely televised, from jury selection to his murder conviction to his sentencing to 22 1/2 years in prison. People worldwide tuned into the livestreams.
“I think livestreaming that trial enabled people here and around the world to see the inner workings of a system that was handling one of the most important trials of our time,” Suki Dardarian, senior managing editor and vice president of the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, which is part of the media coalition, said before the hearing.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office initially opposed having cameras in the court for Chauvin's trial, but now supports them for the other officers' upcoming trial.
“The Chauvin trial demonstrated the benefits of robust public access to this important case and proved that the Court could successfully navigate the concerns animating the State’s initial opposition to audio and video coverage,” prosecutors wrote last week. “The Court’s commendable transparency inspired public confidence in the proceedings and helped ensure calm in Minneapolis and across the country.”
Due to federal court rules, live video coverage was not allowed for the first trial of Thao, Lane and Kueng this year, when all three were convicted of violating Floyd's civil rights. Nor was it allowed for Chauvin's federal case in which he pleaded guilty to civil rights violations. But it was allowed in the December state court trial of former Brooklyn Center Officer Kim Potter in the death of Daunte Wright, who was killed one year ago Monday.
An advisory committee to the Minnesota Supreme Court is considering whether to allow more video coverage of criminal proceedings. It's due to release its report by July 1.
Cahill, in a letter to the committee, said he had opposed cameras in criminal cases before, but that his experience in Chauvin's case changed his opinion, and he now believes they should be presumptively allowed, subject to the trial judge's discretion.
Hennepin County Judge Regina Chu, who presided over Potter's trial, told the Star Tribune in an interview that both the Potter and Chauvin trials convinced her that cameras can be present without being disruptive.
“I forgot they were even there," Chu told the newspaper.