An attorney for the Daily Mail said a Hennepin County judge “egregiously failed” when he denied the British tabloid access to the Derek Chauvin trial because it published leaked body-camera videos.
The London-based outlet asked the Minnesota Court of Appeals to intervene Friday and requested an expedited review of Hennepin County Chief Judge Toddrick Barnette’s March 24 order, which banned the newspaper from accessing all trial exhibits, the media center, and “all media updates related to the trial.”
“It is troubling that the Court would use such pejorative terms in referring to the actions of Petitioners, despite the complete absence of evidence showing that they played any role in copying the video,” Mark Anfinson, local counsel for the Daily Mail, said in the petition.
“And the Court’s insinuation that Petitioners are guilty until proven innocent flies in the face of fundamental principles of American law, disregarding the constitutional protections afforded to Petitioners’ newsgathering and reporting on a matter of national consequence,” he added.
For one day only, members of the public and the press were allowed to view footage recorded by body cameras worn by two officers involved in the arrest of George Floyd. Viewers were allowed to take notes, but were not allowed to “record or re-transmit any portion of the video.”
The Daily Mail published recordings of the videos about two weeks after the July 15 public viewing.
As Anfinson points out, Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill “acknowledged that the video should be directly accessible to the public and news media” just a few days after it was published by the Daily Mail. Cahill then “lifted his prior restriction on copying and public distribution of the video.”
According to court documents, a reporter with the Daily Mail requested access to certain trial exhibits on Feb. 14, but the request was denied in an email from Judge Barnette. Multiple attorneys for the newspaper attempted to persuade the judge to change his mind, according to copies of emails filed with the petition.
“There is nothing in your email that changes my decision. However, if you would like to turn over the name(s) and contact information of the person(s) that Daily Mail paid for the published video footage stolen from our courthouse, I will gladly reconsider my decision,” Barnette replied.
Throughout this process, Barnette never said that the Daily Mail “violated any law, rule, or court order in obtaining the body-camera video, nor has any contrary evidence been cited to Petitioners.”
“The restrictions imposed by Judge Barnette on Petitioner’s access to the court records in State v. Chauvin have been adopted with virtually no effort to comply with the requirements of Minn. R. Crim. P. 25.03, and in complete disregard of the fact that presumptive access to criminal court records is mandated by the First Amendment,” said the Daily Mail’s petition.
It further states that Barnette provided “no presentation of specific evidence that could justify the access restrictions.”
Anfinson also responded to a particularly striking assertion from Barnette, who admitted to assuming “that the Daily Mail paid for the stolen video footage” and was thus “confident” that the outlet could “pay to obtain the trial exhibits associated with this case.”
“The suggestion that a news organization’s First Amendment right to directly access criminal court records can be waved aside in any case where the news organization might be able to obtain the records, for a fee, from ‘other media outlets,’ so long as doing so is ‘merely an inconvenience’ exhibits a pronounced lack of respect for the protections of the Constitution, and why they exist,” Anfinson replied.
Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, is accused of murdering George Floyd while on duty May 25. Opening arguments are scheduled to begin Monday, so “time is of the essence” for the Daily Mail.
“This conclusion is buttressed by a long line of Supreme Court decisions holding that where a news organization receives and disseminates records or information that were allegedly obtained illegally or improperly by a third party, the news organization is protected by the First Amendment, and cannot be sanctioned unless it was complicit in the illegal or improper activity,” Anfinson concluded.