Wednesday, September 22, 2021

in-focus

Former Minneapolis police officers seek delay in George Floyd murder trial


MINNEAPOLIS - Two of the former Minneapolis police officers charged in George Floyd's killing have asked a judge to delay the trial, accusing prosecutors of slow-rolling the handoff of key evidence and of turning over material that they say appears disorganized and riddled with technical problems.

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In separate court filings, attorneys for Derek Chauvin and Tou Thao argued that the delays, and their concerns with the trial materials, have harmed their ability to prepare an adequate defense for their clients. The trial is scheduled to begin March 8.

Robert Paule, an attorney for Thao, asked Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill to delay the trial by four months - to July 5. Eric Nelson, an attorney for Chauvin, did not cite a specific date in his request for a delay but pressed for "relief the court deems just."

Chauvin's attorney also asked Cahill for an extension to a Dec. 15 deadline for the defense to disclose planned expert witnesses, partly blaming prosecution delays but acknowledging other issues in what has become a notorious case that spawned widespread protests and calls for police policy changes: "It also should be noted that the global profile of this case has also contributed to the delay in retaining experts willing or able to participate," Nelson wrote.

Floyd died May 25 while handcuffed and restrained facedown on a South Minneapolis street as police investigated a 911 call about a counterfeit $20 bill that had been passed at a local convenience store. During a struggle, Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd's neck for more than nine minutes, as the 46-year-old Black man repeatedly complained he couldn't breathe. Floyd ultimately lost consciousness and a pulse and was later pronounced dead at a hospital.

Chauvin, a 19-year-veteran of the Minneapolis force, was charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter, while the other officers at the scene - Thao, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas K. Lane - were charged with aiding and abetting murder. The Minneapolis Police Department fired all four of the men.

In June, Cahill set an Aug. 14 deadline for disclosure of evidence in the case. But defense attorneys have repeatedly complained about the prosecution's slow pace of disclosure and the nature of it, claiming the evidence has been disorganized.

Defense attorneys estimated they have so far received tens of thousands of pages of police documents and more than 300 gigabytes of video, including surveillance footage that captured the moments before Floyd's death.

In a court filling Monday, Nelson said "every single round of discovery" had been riddled with problems, including corrupted files, videos that would not open and electronic documents that were arranged "in absolutely no discernible order."

He estimated that prosecutors had disclosed "approximately 17,000 items of substantive value" after the judge's August deadline and that key items appeared to be deliberately buried or "hay stacked" within material that seems irrelevant to the case, including documents related to the city's mounted police patrol and planning reports for the 2008 Republican National Convention.

"It appears as if the state has printed the reports, shuffled them like a deck of cards and scanned them back into the computer to be disclosed," Nelson wrote.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office is leading the case, said in a statement Monday that prosecutors "disagree with the characterizations" detailed by defense attorneys and would respond in detail in a future court filing.

Among the documents of contention is an FBI summary report of a July 8 interview between the agency and Hennepin County Medical Examiner Andrew Baker, who conducted Floyd's autopsy and probably will be a key figure in the trial. The former officers have indicated that they will argue that Floyd died as a result of poor health and drug use, not because of any actions the officers took.

According to the FBI summary of the interview, which was not recorded, agents said Baker told them Floyd's heart and lungs had stopped "due to the combined effects of his health problems as well as the exertion and restraint involved in Floyd's interaction with police prior to being on the ground."

The summary, filed into evidence as part of Thao's motion, says Baker told the FBI other factors had contributed to Floyd's cardiopulmonary arrest, including existing heart disease and the presence of fentanyl and other intoxicants. "Baker did not know if Floyd would have lived but for the officer's actions," the FBI summary reads. But the medical examiner told agents that "the stress from the events that occurred with Minneapolis police officers was more than Floyd could tolerate."

Paule, Thao's attorney, told the judge that prosecutors had been aware of the FBI interview at least as of Aug. 7, pointing to a letter prosecutors sent to the U.S. attorney's office as FBI agents were working to summarize the interview. According to Paule and Nelson, the FBI report, dated Sept. 1, was given to defense attorneys on Oct. 28 - more than two months after the discovery deadline.

"The state had knowledge of this interview and its importance yet failed to timely and properly fully disclose the materials," Paule wrote in a motion on Friday. He accused prosecutors of "knowingly" withholding evidence that Baker had "opined that the police restraint of George Floyd on the ground did not cause his death" and that their delayed disclosure "appears to have been done so in a manner designed to handicap" his client.

In addition to delaying the trial, Paule asked for the judge to sanction prosecutors by ordering them to pay defense attorney fees and costs related to the evidence disclosure delays.

In an unrelated case, Hennepin County prosecutors said Monday that they would not bring homicide charged against a White pawnshop owner who allegedly fatally shot a Black man in South Minneapolis during the civil unrest that followed Floyd's death.

Calvin Horton, 43, was shot May 27 outside Cadillac Pawn along Lake Street during the second night of protests over Floyd's death. John Rieple, the store's owner, was arrested but was never formally charged.

County attorney Mike Freeman said Monday that prosecutors did not have enough evidence to counter Rieple's claim of self-defense, pointing to a lack of cooperation from witnesses. Authorities also were hampered because they could not recover key evidence, Freeman said: Faced with a hostile crowd, police abandoned the scene before finding a weapon, and "looters destroyed all the video" from store security cameras.

Published : December 15, 2020

By : The Washington Post · Holly Bailey