Attorney and writer Scott Johnson is on the ground at the Hennepin County Courthouse covering the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is accused of murdering George Floyd last May.
Here are Johnson’s observations from day one, originally published at Power Line:
I anticipated that Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill would take up the prosecution’s motion to reinstate the third-degree murder charge against Derek Chauvin first thing Monday morning at 8:00 and then commence jury selection at 9:00. Instead the state moved to stay proceedings until the state’s effort to reinstate the third-degree murder charge results in a final judgment in the Court of Appeals or the Minnesota Supreme Court. The attorney for Chauvin announced that he would promptly seek review of the Court of Appeals decision requiring Judge Cahill to consider reinstatement of the third-degree murder charge under the Court of Appeals opinion in the Noor case in the Minnesota Supreme Court.
This threw a wrench into the commencement of jury selection. It appeared that Judge Cahill unsuccessfully sought guidance from the Court of Appeals with the input of the parties out of sight of the media Monday afternoon. Absent such guidance, Judge Cahill heard motions in limine over the course of an hour early Monday afternoon. The hearing concluded with his statement that “unless the Court of Appeals instructs me otherwise, we’re going to keep moving.” I believe it is the right thing to do.
The prosecution is led by Assistant Minnesota Attorney General Matthew Frank. Chauvin is represented by defense attorney Eric Nelson. Meeting over the lunch hour, they agreed that 16 of the first 50 prospective jurors summoned to serve should be excused for cause based on their answers to the 14-page jury questionnaire I linked to yesterday in my pretrial notes. This suggests to me something of the difficulty of protecting Chauvin’s right to a fair trial in the lynch mob atmosphere that pervades the case.
Before his appointment to the bench by Gov. Pawlenty, Judge Cahill worked both as a public defender in private practice as an attorney specializing in criminal defense. He also worked on the other side of the fence in the Office of the Hennepin County Attorney, where he rose to the level of Chief Deputy Hennepin County Attorney. Asking around town last week among those who know him, I was told he is “uniquely qualified” to handle the case.
Even so, the case raises fair trial challenges that I believe to be beyond the capacity of the judicial system. Perhaps a change of venue to Thief River Falls in northwestern Minnesota might mitigate the problem. Short of that, however, I don’t see it. The process of voir dire should in any event shed some light on this issue.