By STEVE KARNOWSKI and AMY FORLITI Associated Press
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A judge said Friday he won’t delay or move the trial of a former Minneapolis police officer charged in George Floyd’s death over concerns that a $27 million settlement for Floyd’s family could taint the jury pool, but he’ll allow limited evidence from a 2019 arrest.
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Jury selection was halfway complete last week when the Minneapolis City Council announced it had unanimously approved the massive payout to settle a civil rights lawsuit over Floyd’s death. Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, subsequently sought to halt or move the trial, calling the timing of the settlement deeply disturbing and unfair, saying it jeopardized Chauvin’s chance for a fair trial. Chauvin is charged with murder and manslaughter.
But Cahill, who has called the timing “unfortunate,” said he thought a delay would do nothing to stem the problem of pretrial publicity. As for moving the trial, he said there’s no place in Minnesota that hasn’t been touched by that publicity.
The judge handed the defense a victory by ruling that the jury can hear evidence from Floyd’s 2019 arrest, but only that pertaining to the cause of his death in 2020. He acknowledged there are several similarities between the two encounters, including that Floyd swallowed drugs after police confronted him.
The judge previously said the earlier arrest could not be admitted at all, but new evidence made him reconsider: Drugs were found in January in a second search of the police SUV that the four officers attempted to put Floyd inside last year. The defense argues that Floyd’s drug use contributed to his death.
Cahill said he would allow medical evidence of Floyd’s physical reactions, such as his dangerously high blood pressure when he was examined by a paramedic in 2019, and a short clip of an officer’s body camera video. He said Floyd’s “emotional behavior” such as calling out to his mother in 2019 won’t be admitted.
But Cahill said he doesn’t plan, for now, to allow the testimony of a forensic psychiatrist for the prosecution. The state wanted Dr. Sarah Vinson to testify that Floyd’s actions leading up to the fatal encounter last May — claiming he had claustrophobia and resisting getting into the squad car — were consistent with a normal person experiencing severe stress, as opposed to faking it or resisting arrest.
The judge said he would reconsider allowing her as a rebuttal witness if the defense somehow opens the door, but that allowing her to testify could usher in all of the evidence from Floyd’s 2019 arrest.
“Clearly there is a cause of death issue here, and it is highly contested,” Cahill said, noting that both arrests involved Floyd’s cardiac problems and ingestion of drugs.
The ruling is a win for the defense because the earlier arrest “adds a bit more weight” to the defense’s plan to argue that Floyd put his own life in danger by ingesting drugs again and that, combined with his health problems, caused his death, said Ted Sampsell-Jones, a professor at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law.
While the defense isn’t supposed to use the evidence to portray Floyd in an unflattering light, Sampsell-Jones said it does anyway. “Jurors are not supposed to be influenced by that sort of thing, but they are human,” he said.
Local defense attorney Ryan Pacyga agreed that the ruling helps the defense, but said it’s not necessarily “a major, major game changer” and doesn’t necessarily hurt the prosecution because they can point to the different outcomes.
The prosecution can come back and say, ‘Wait, he didn’t die before.’ What’s the difference? They’re going to point to the knee on the neck,” Pacyga said.
Floyd, who was Black, was declared dead May 25 after Chauvin, who is white, pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for about nine minutes while he was handcuffed and pleading that he couldn’t breathe. Floyd’s death, captured on a widely seen bystander video, set off weeks of sometimes-violent protests across the country and led to a national reckoning on racial justice.
Just two more jurors were needed for the trial. The 12 jurors seated through Thursday are evenly split by race, with six white jurors, four Black and two multiracial, according to the court. The panel will include 12 jurors and two alternates.
Opening statements are March 29 if the jury is complete. That process is on track to finish nearly a week early.
Three other former officers face an August trial in Floyd’s death on charges of aiding and abetting second-degree murder and manslaughter.