Chauvin defense: Minneapolis settlement with Floyd family could "taint jury pool," demands change of venue

What a disaster, once again brought to the Twin Cities by Minneapolis’ deeply unserious city government. Rather than wait until the end of the trials this spring and summer, the city council announced a massive $27 million settlement in the wrongful-death lawsuit brought by the family of George Floyd. That landed right in the middle of jury selection in the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin, and now the defense wants a delay — and may move for a mistrial:

The $27 million civil settlement the city of Minneapolis reached last week with the family of George Floyd threw uncertainty into the ongoing selection of jurors Monday in the murder trial of fired police officer Derek Chauvin.

Defense attorney Eric Nelson expressed deep concern that jurors already chosen and those yet to be chosen will be prejudiced should they learn of the settlement, thereby denying his client his right to a fair trial. During Friday’s proceedings, the city council signed off on the settlement, followed by a public announcement.

“I am gravely concerned with the news that broke on Friday related to the civil settlement,” Nelson said. “…The fact that this came in the exact middle of jury selection is perplexing to me, Your Honor.”

Nelson said the settlement’s timing was “very suspicious” and “has incredible propensity to taint the jury pool.”

Not only does the defense want a continuance to judge the impact of this announcement on the case, they now want the trial moved out of the Twin Cities. Judge Peter Cahill didn’t rule out either course of action:

The attorney for Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged in George Floyd’s death, asked the judge overseeing the case to delay the trial and reconsider a change-of-venue motion, saying he was “gravely concerned” the $27 million civil settlement announced last week between the city of Minneapolis and the Floyd family has tainted the jury pool. …

Cahill didn’t immediately rule on the defense requests, but agreed the developments were “concerning.” “I wish city officials would stop talking about this case so much,” he said.

Cahill agreed he would have to call back the seated jurors in the case, but suggested he would do so closer to the date of opening arguments, currently scheduled for March 29. He said he would take the other defense motions into consideration and proceed forward with jury selection in the case.

Cahill also said that he didn’t see any “evil” intent in the announcement, but it doesn’t require evil intent to foul up a jury pool. It’s a question of whether a defendant can get a fair trial based on publicity in the case, and Minneapolis just made that an acute issue all over again with this announcement. No one’s quite sure why they decided to announce it at this point; they waited until after Mohammed Noor’s conviction to announce a $20 million settlement with Justine Damond’s family a few years ago, despite negotiating it earlier.

The former chief public defender in Hennepin County, where this case is being tried (for now), told the local Fox News affiliate that the timing of this announcement was “awful”:

“This is awful,” said former Chief Public Defender for Hennepin County Mary Moriarty. “This is awful for the state, and awful for the defense.”

Moriarty says while jurors have promised to not consume any news reports on the case, it’s hard to believe they didn’t hear about the settlement.

“We want everyone to get a fair trial, and this just is not good timing at all, and it’s very damaging,” she said.

When asked about the timing of the settlement, the city of Minneapolis pointed to City Attorney Jim Rowander’s statement at a news conference Friday. When pressed by the media, Rowander said, “You know, we are trying to be very respectful of the criminal proceedings that are now underway and we’re now in jury selection and I think it wouldn’t be wise for all of us to comment on something that is ongoing.”

At the very least, the Minneapolis city council has opened up a major point on appeal about the fairness of the trial. Cahill seemed to recognize that, even if he tried to downplay the impact on the trial:

“You would agree it’s unfortunate, wouldn’t you?” Cahill asked Schleicher, “that we have this reported all over the media when we’re in the midst of jury selection?”

“I don’t know which way it cuts,” Schleicher said.

“The problem is that it cuts,” Cahill said. “I think the defense has a legitimate concern, and even the state has a concern.”

You bet they do, and so will appellate courts in case Chauvin gets convicted. Cahill will have to re-examine the seven jurors already selected at minimum to see how much this news has impacted, as well as all of the other prospective jurors from the current pool. The question of venue has always loomed over this trial, but now the defense has a legitimate and specific issue on which to demand a change in the trial and jury pool. The city’s rush to promote the settlement might well mean this process will drag out for months longer than predicted, and could negate any of the goodwill they meant to generate with this large settlement.