Great news: Next murder trial in George Floyd case postponed until March 2022, thanks to DoJ

Great news, if you don’t have to live in the Twin Cities, especially near the “autonomous zone” of George Floyd Square. Otherwise, the rescheduling of the next murder trial in the George Floyd case will extend the unrest and uncertainty in Minnesota’s cities, and perhaps other cities as well.

And we have the Department of Justice and Attorney General Merrick Garland to thank for it, too:

The trial for three ex-Minneapolis police officers charged with aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter in the killing of George Floyd has been postponed to next year following their indictment on federal civil rights charges.

Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane will now stand trial on March 7, 2022. They were originally scheduled to stand trial this August. The rescheduling follows a motion hearing Thursday morning in Hennepin County District court, where Judge Peter Cahill said the federal case should proceed first. Defense attorneys for the officers did not object to changing the date. Prosecutor Matthew Frank said he disagreed with the new date.

Judge Peter Cahill put the blame where it belonged:

In other words, the DoJ just pre-empted the actual murder trial with its bigfooting on civil-rights prosecution. Why that takes precedence over the state trial is beyond me. Wouldn’t it be easier for federal prosecutors to pursue the civil-rights case after a conviction on state and local charges against the four officers? That’s the order it will take in regard to Derek Chauvin, who got convicted of second-degree murder and could get a 40-year sentence for it, and federal prosecutors at least have that information on record first.

Mostly, though, it just points out again how duplicative and intrusive the DoJ has acted on this indictment. The proper priority here is the murder case; the DoJ should have held off on indictments, let alone a trial, until the state and county finished its own prosecution. That has been the traditional priority in overlapping jurisdictions, so much so that it’s tough to recall a federal civil-rights prosecution in a case where the state/local authorities were actively and credibly prosecuting the underlying crime.

I hope the DoJ and Garland enjoy their limelight. The Twin Cities will be paying the bill for it.

In another development, one of the remaining defendants accused prosecutors in the Chauvin trial of coercing testimony from a key witness:

Attorneys for Tou Thao, the former Minneapolis police officer charged with playing a role in the death of George Floyd, Jr., filed an explosive motion Wednesday which accuses the top official responsible for Floyd’s autopsy of being “coerced by the State and its agents” into changing his professional assessments of Floyd’s condition into medical opinions that were favorable to the prosecution at trial. Thao’s defense alleges that a fellow forensic pathologist threatened to publish a negative article against Hennepin County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Andrew Baker unless Baker conceded that Floyd died in part from “neck compression” by ex-officer Derek Chauvin, who has since been convicted of murder. The attorneys go on to argue that the alleged strong-armed tactics have prevented the defense from securing experts willing to testify on Thao’s behalf.

According to a 9-page court document filed Wednesday, May 12, Thao’s attorneys, Robert M. Paule and Natalie R. Paule, are accusing Dr. Roger Mitchell, the “former Medical Examiner of Washington D.C.,” of leveraging Baker by placing a phone call sometime between May 29, 2020, when Baker released a preliminary statement about George Floyd, and June 1, 2020, when Baker signed his findings as to the cause and manner of Floyd’s death. (The full autopsy was released publicly on June 3, 2020.) During the supposed call, Baker is alleged to have said that “he didn’t think the neck compression played a part” in Floyd’s death. Mitchell is alleged to have suggested that Baker “should fire his public information officer” for issuing the May 29 preliminary statement which said, in part, that the medical examiner’s autopsy “revealed no physical findings that support a diagnosis of traumatic asphyxia or strangulation.” …

Mitchell is alleged by Thao’s legal team to have said the following to Baker in a subsequent conversation:

[Y]ou don’t want to be the medical examiner who tells everyone they didn’t see what they saw. You don’t want to be the smartest person in the room and be wrong. Said there was a way to articulate the cause and manner of death that ensures you are telling the truth about what you are observing and via all of the investigation. Mitchell said neck compression has to be in the diagnosis.

The claim involves both an alleged discovery violation as well as an accusation of criminal coercion. As Lawfare reminds readers, a motion containing an allegation like this is basically nothing more than an accusation. The court may take it seriously enough to ask for testimony, depending on what the response from prosecutors might be. They have already told the court that the claim is “bizarre” and “false,” but also asked for a week to submit a brief responding in specifics to the claim.

It’s a long shot, but if Thao’s attorneys can substantiate this allegation, it would likely result in a new trial for Chauvin and a continuance for the other three defendants. Perhaps Garland will have more than one reason to regret his grandstanding play, but one is enough.