On Monday, lawyers for Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis Police officer charged in the death of George Floyd, requested to move his trial out of Hennepin County.
Their request came after the city of Minneapolis announced on Friday a $27 million settlement in a wrongful death lawsuit filed in federal court by Floyd’s family. They reasoned that in the midst of jury selection, news of the settlement — hard to avoid given the attention on the case, even for people instructed to avoid media coverage — could influence jurors’ opinions.
“You have elected officials — the governor, the mayor — making incredibly prejudicial statements about my client, this case,”defense attorney Eric Nelson said in court. “You have the city settling a civil lawsuit for a record amount of money. And the pre-trial publicity is just so concerning.”
Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill is calling jurors already seated back to ask them about their knowledge of the settlement, and said he would consider the request to change the venue of the trial.
If he were to grant the request, it would be a rare example of it happening in Minnesota.
Few cases in Minnesota
Over the years, courts have interpreted the “impartial” part of this to include moving the trial if it’s determined that the accused can’t get a fair one in the location where the crime was committed. This is usually because the case has brought so much publicity that potential jurors are likely to have formed opinions about it ahead of time.
Several high-profile trials in the last century have featured changes in venue: In 1992, the police officers charged with beating Rodney King were tried — and mostly acquitted — in Simi Valley, an almost all-white suburb of Los Angeles, the city where the beating actually happened. And in 1996, the federal case against Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was held in Denver, Colorado instead of Oklahoma City.
The most recent Minnesota case to see a change of venue is likely 2015’s State v. Fitch, which concerned a man accused, and later convicted, of killing a Mendota Heights police officer at a traffic stop in 2015.
In Fitch, the defense asked to change the venue because, it argued, the media coverage surrounding the case would make an impartial jury impossible in the Twin Cities. It had commissioned a survey that found 91 percent of Dakota County residents knew about the case and 83 percent thought defendant Brian Fitch was probably or definitely guilty, per the Star Tribune. The trial was moved to St. Cloud.
Before that, in 2008, a woman charged with killing four children in a school bus crash in Lyon County successfully had her trial moved to Kandiyohi County.
Defense lawyers for Jeronimo Yanez, the police officer who shot Philando Castile in 2016 and not found guilty of murder, requested to move the trial on the grounds that publicity in Ramsey County would make it hard to find an impartial jury. That request was denied.
As in the Yanez case, Chauvin’s attorneys initially asked Judge Cahill to move the trial due to publicity surrounding the case, but the judge denied the request in November.
“He wrote that he couldn’t imagine a corner of Minnesota where someone hadn’t heard about the case,” Mary Moriarty, the former chief public defender in Hennepin County, said of Cahill’s decision. “He was not convinced that there would be jurors that were unaware of the same things the jurors in Hennepin county were aware of.”
Considerations on appeal
Cahill is expected to rule on the request for a change of venue Friday and is also expected to rule this week on the defense’s request to postpone the trial to let news of the settlement die down.
If the change of venue isn’t granted, David Schultz, a visiting professor of law at the University of Minnesota, said there is some chance that if there’s a guilty verdict and an appeal, a higher court could declare that Chauvin did not get a fair trial given the publicity surrounding the trial in Minneapolis.
Such was the case in Sheppard v. Maxwell, a case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, in which an Ohio doctor, Sam Sheppard, was accused of bludgeoning his pregnant wife to death. In 1966, the U.S. Supreme struck down Sheppard’s conviction, determining the trial judge had failed to protect him from publicity.
Moriarty doesn’t think keeping the trial in Hennepin County would necessarily be grounds for an appeal, though. For one, she said, it’s not clear whether the settlement announcement will help the defense or the prosecution.
She also noted that Cahill is re-interviewing jurors to determine whether the news reached them and what they make of it.
Chauvin’s trial is happening in a time when it’s really hard to insulate jurors from learning about the case, Moriarty said. Even though jurors were instructed to avoid news of the trial, that’s all but impossible with social media and other ubiquitous forms of communication.
“[Cahill] has ordered the jurors not to tell anybody they’re on this trail, and not to do any research on it or try to expose themselves, but as you saw or heard [Monday], a man got excused, because in his workplace break room, there was a TV on all the time,” she said.
Given the publicity around the case, it’s also impossible to prevent people from talking to jurors about the news, especially given they’re not supposed to tell people they’re potential jurors in the case.
Another consideration for Cahill is the logistical challenge of moving the trial, Moriarty said. Witnesses, of which there are many, would have to travel to appear in court. Plus, there are COVID-19 accommodations, like plexiglass and social distancing that she thinks few Minnesota courtrooms could make.
“I suspect the Court of Appeals, or any appellate, would say this is extremely unfortunate, it is really bad timing, but under the circumstances, what Judge Cahill did was appropriate,” she said.
Correction: This article has been corrected to accurately state the location the bus crash trial was moved to. The trial moved to Kandiyohi County.