Breaking: Chauvin to get separate trial in George Floyd death

Did three former Minneapolis police officers luck out because of COVID-19? The judge in the George Floyd murder case severed Derek Chauvin from the other three defendants, thanks to an inability to conduct a trial with all four defendants under pandemic controls. Judge Peter Cahill split the case after finding that the expected vaccination rollout now appears too optimistic to expect those protocols to be relaxed by March:

A former Minneapolis police officer who held his knee to the neck of George Floyd for minutes will be tried separately from three other former officers accused in his death, according to scheduling orders filed Tuesday.

Derek Chauvin will stand trial alone in March due to the coronavirus pandemic while the other three former officers will be tried together in the summer, according to the orders filed in Hennepin County District Court.

Judge Peter Cahill cited the limitations of physical space during the coronavirus pandemic for his order to split the defendants’ trials. It is “impossible to comply with COVID-19 physical restrictions” given how many lawyers and support personnel that four defendants say would be present, Cahill wrote.

Prosecutors wanted to keep all four defendants together at trial but postpone until June, when vaccinations should allow protocols to be lifted — theoretically. Cahill ruled against the motion, saying his was “not so optimistic given news reports” about the slow rollout of the vaccines. In Minnesota, we have not yet even begun vaccination efforts beyond the CDC’s previous 1A category, and it’s not clear whether those supplies exist to expand yet.

Hence we get the 3:1 split, and that will open up opportunities for the other three defendants to push all the responsibility onto Chauvin. Their trial won’t begin until August, which means Chauvin’s case will almost certainly have been adjudicated before theirs. If Chauvin gets convicted of homicide in some form over Floyd’s death, the anger might abate a bit before the other three come to trial. It would also open up the defense to point to Chauvin’s conviction and remind the jury that only Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck, and that Chauvin was the senior officer present and who was directing their actions.

That’s why Attorney General Keith Ellison is displeased with the decision:

Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office is prosecuting the case, maintained in a statement that he believes all four defendants should be tried together to avoid retraumatizing witnesses and family members, along with the risk of separate trials prejudicing jury pools.

“It is also clear that COVID-19 will still be a serious threat to public health in 8 weeks’ time. While we are confident that the Court has established protocols to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission during trial, we believe, and independent public health experts agree, that with the advent of the vaccine the threat will be significantly abated by mid-year for everyone participating in or with an interest in this case,” Ellison said. “Nevertheless, we are fully prepared and look forward to presenting our case to a jury whenever the Court deems fit.”

Ellison also objects, as any prosecutor would, to splitting trials between defendants charged over the same actions. It makes it a lot easier for the defendants to pass the buck to their other co-defendant(s) in the separate trial, especially for Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao. None of those three put their knees on Floyd’s neck, which means a different jury may well see their involvement much differently — especially if Chauvin has already been found guilty. And if for some reason Ellison can’t get a conviction for Chauvin, those three defendants will really play that up to a second jury.

Needless to say, that will not play well in the Twin Cities, especially if it results in acquittals for any of these defendants. Expect to hear rumblings of discontent soon over this decision in Minneapolis.